The valiant and vital work of four globetrotting human rights activists is expertly illuminated in “E-Team,” a dynamic and immersive piece of you-are-there verite. Risking life and limb to investigate atrocities in Syria and Libya and bring them to the attention of media and governments, these fearless members of Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Team make unforgettable characters in a documentary that’s devastating, entertaining and inspiring in equal measure. Co-directors Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman prove plenty intrepid themselves by daring to follow the E-Team’s every move even as bombs fly. Viewers across the globe seem destined to support the cause.
Although it salutes the titular crew (and shows the comfortable lives they enjoy between missions), “E-Team” takes care not to bury the lead; the film opens in 2013 just after cluster bombs dropped from Syrian planes have killed some 200 civilians, including many children. On the scene are Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang, who listen intently to the testimonies of frightened Syrian villagers huddled together in a tiny apartment as the nerve-rattling sound of explosions continues.
Another scene of startling immediacy — and risk to the filmmakers — reveals how the pair managed to sneak into Syria, with Kauffman’s camera trailing Neistat and Solvang as they travel by car through Turkey in the dead of night, then cross the border on foot over barbed wire and begin to run. “We’re in Syria!” Ole announces in an early example of the E-Team’s disarming sense of humor. “We’re safe!”
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The E-Team’s other members in the film are Peter Bouckaert, a weapons specialist with a hair-trigger temper, and Fred Abrahams, the boyish-looking “father” of the group who came face to face with Slobodan Milosevic at the Yugoslav Tribunal in the early aughts. Abrahams’ testimony against the smirking Milosevic appears at length near the end of the film to show the ultimate utility of the team’s criminal investigations. Working together in Libya, Bouckaert and Abrahams are seen interviewing survivors of Gaddafi’s attacks on protesters and other civilians in 2011, and photographing the charred bodies and mass graves of the dead.
Despite their gallantry in the face of physically and emotionally grueling work, the team members never appear arrogant or self-righteous — which surely stands to endear them and their cause to an audience wider than that for activist documentaries. In fact, the E-Team is often flat-out funny. Bouckaert confesses to getting a kick out of “fucking with bad people,” while Abrahams likes pampering himself at airports en route to hell on earth. Neistat and Solvang, married and living with Neistat’s 12 year-old son in a tastefully appointed Paris apartment, choose not to preach to the boy about their do-gooding; if anything, they appear comically overconfident in the kid’s ability to comprehend war on his own, even letting him watch a pulpy Angelina Jolie actioner on his laptop.
Crucial to the film’s power is the fact that Chevigny and Kauffman also grant significant screen time to distraught survivors, including a Syrian man who lost several family members only hours earlier. Another Syrian citizen gazes into the camera with tears in her eyes as she asks, “What’s the point of talking?”
For their part, the E-Team members have no illusions about the degree of difference they can make amid such rampant human cruelty. As they see it, their job is to counteract the secrecy on which abusers of human rights depend; victories are measured in newspaper column inches, hits on blog posts and minutes on the nightly news. Then there’s “E-Team,” a film whose sharp storytelling, death-defying videography and engrossing protagonists would seem to give it even greater eye-opening potential than a dozen front-page scoops.
David Teague’s editing is tight as a drum, while T. Griffin’s pulse-pounding music keeps the audience in the action. Other tech credits — even sound recorded under harrowing circumstances — are pro all the way.