Film Review: “E-Team”

Angela Barisic

Airing on selected theatres and Netflix on October 24th, E-team was a success claiming many awards. In this documentary we get to tag along on the journey of four members of Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Team (E-team). Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter are all trained to deal with unfolding crises, flying to hotspots all over the world where allegations of human rights abuse surface. We see them gathering evidence, investigating and documenting, and through this, shining light in dark places, giving voices to thousands whose stories otherwise never would have been told.


Always having seen my future lawyer-self primarily as a paper-pusher, this movie opened up my eyes a bit for field missions. Seeing these courageous investigators risk their lives to document unlawful attacks on civilians by brutal dictators will inspire most people, not to mention human rights professionals. We first get to see the married couple Anna and Ole in their home in Paris, during 2011, talking to their twelve-year old son about their coming mission in Syria. After the protests there had been reports of arbitrary killing, torture and detention. Given the current situation in the country, they are planning on being smuggled in – which provides us with a weird paradoxical feeling, given that this is exactly what the Syrian refugees have to do in order to escape from their hell. Jumping out of the car in the middle of the night, running over the fields, finally crossing the wired border. When arriving to their safe house, the next day, Anna is putting on her abaya – explaining her discomfort for the veiling-tradition seen from a women’s rights perspective, while at the same time, she tells us, it makes her feel safe working on the ground. Then the first interviews begin. We are at a building with bullet holes in the wall indicating an execution. After interviewing some witnesses Anna says, “We never use just one case, because people can exaggerate, or they don’t always tell the truth. Thus we interview a lot of people about the same crime”. Moving on to another site, a grieving older woman who just lost her three sons to Assad’s men is telling her story in tears and says afterwards, clearly in despair, “What’s the point of writing this down? What’s the point of me telling you all this?”

“…we changed the game of human rights, we made them more relevant”

Talking with Fred, another member of the team, he responds that it may seem hopeless today, but it is possible that these people will have their day in court. This is why they are doing this; they are hoping for accountability in the end. Fred explains that this is exactly what happened with their work in Kosovo, which eventually became one of the big cases in the Yugoslav tribunal. Documenting the ethnic cleansing that happened in September 1998 in Gornje Brnje, including taking pictures of dead women and children laying in gullies, Fred tells us that the resulting article he and his colleagues wrote about this, ended up on the top desk at the White House, changing the international debate. The event in Gornje Brnje started the emergency-program at Human Rights Watch, and Fred says that “with this we changed the game of human rights, we made them more relevant”. In 1999 Slobodan Milosevic got indicted for war crimes in Kosovo. The documentary includes footage from the hearing in The Hague, where Fred assisted the prosecution as an expert witness on the context of the conflict. He described it as a horrifying experience. “You’re talking to the guy you were tracking for 10 years. And he’s sitting there, smirking with this horrible slimy arrogance.” As the pictures taken by Human Rights Watch, of a dead child laying in the gulley is being presented, Milosevic makes his defence with political speeches, pretending to be the hero of the nation – “Thank god Milosevic was representing himself,” Fred says, as he continues to explain that he felt that he had an obligation towards everyone that had told him their story. He felt like it was his responsibility, he owed them their moment in Court, and that this was his chance to represent them.

I’m not freaking out, we knew what we were getting ourselves into.”

The film presents several field missions to Syria with Anna and Ole. In 2012 theyare investigating recent air strikes, themselves hearing rockets landing two streets away from their safe house. Anna says, “I’m not freaking out, we knew what we were getting ourselves into”. While hiding in the basement with the family they are living with, the Syrian woman asks them, “But aren’t you afraid of dying in a country like this?” Ole calmly responds that he is indeed a bit nervous. Their bravery becomes even more heightened once they reveal that Anna is pregnant. As a viewer, I just sat there with my mouth wide open, wondering whether this is actually courageous or just stupid. We also get to see the other work of the investigators besides the adrenaline-filled field missions: how they struggle with internal debates within the organization, multi-tasking with writing articles, press releases, getting interviewed etc. When asked why they are doing what they do, and how it impacts themselves, Fred explains that they are not doing this with the ambition of stopping the war in Syria: “We’re not going to stop any war. For me, it’s just about making the war a bit more tolerable for the people stuck in it.” Anna explains how the work impacts her: “You really go from hope to despair, to hope, back to despair… And then you meet somebody on the ground, a witness, a victim, an incredible activist, and you feel like if they haven’t given up, how on earth do you have the right to give up on them?”

Those guilty of crimes should be prosecuted in a court, not by burning down their homes!”

Besides Syria, we also follow Peter and Fredon their mission in Libya in 2011. They are called to investigate what is called a “human slaughterhouse”, and when they get there, they see that it is not exaggerated; while walking in a big garage, filled with bullet holes and remains of burned bodies, the investigators are interviewing surviving victims. When asked how they verify the stories, Fred says it is basically about gathering detailed testimonies, tracking down other eye-witnesses, and then cross-checking the dates, the numbers etc; “We’re closer to criminal investigators, investigating international crimes.” Once the civil war is over and the rebels have defeated Gaddafi the team returns to investigate abuses on both sides. After investigating some burned down houses we can see Peter visiting a Libyan rebel outpost trying to convince that what they’ve done is wrong, saying “Those guilty of crimes should be prosecuted in a court, not by burning down their homes!”

Overall, I highly recommend you to see the 1h 29m film, especially if you are a young aspiring human rights professional. You get to see the variety of workload the investigators undertake, as well as getting some perception of the job’s perks and disadvantages. And if nothing else, you will get inspired by their incredible drive, something that is impersonated at the ending of the movie: Anna has just had her baby, and while her older son is visiting her and his baby-sibling in the hospital, she gets a call and is being asked to conduct an interview on the executions in al-Baida, Syria. She answers positively “What time would you like to do that?”

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