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Diane Foley had to see it with her own eyes, so she did, traveling from New Hampshire to Toronto to catch a screening of a new film, Viper Club, at the Toronto Film Festival on Tuesday.
After watching the film, which stars Susan Sarandon, Foley was more convinced than ever that her life story was taken without her advance knowledge, consent or participation and made into a motion picture, scheduled to hit theaters in late October. She calls the screening a “very upsetting experience.”
Foley is a nurse and Sarandon’s character, “Helen,” is a nurse. Her son, James Foley, was a freelance journalist who was abducted while reporting in Syria in 2012 and whose brutal killing by the Islamic State was taped and broadcast around the world in August 2014. In Viper Club, Helen’s son, “Andy” (Julian Morris) is a freelance journalist who is abducted by the Islamic State while reporting in Syria and meets the same fate as James.
As Foley did after her son’s abduction, Helen tries in vain to navigate the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., to help secure his release. As with Foley, she’s bounced back and forth between multiple government agencies and told that she could face jail time for trying to raise a ransom to pay a terrorist group. And, like Foley, she is told not to talk about her son’s abduction.
Helen connects with a secret network of international journalists that exists in real life and was in touch with Foley, though Foley did not tap the network for ransom-raising purposes like the character did. (The film was originally named after the real group, but was changed after the group protested.)
Foley says even some of the film’s dialogue matches things she and her husband, John, have said.
“She even physically resembles me,” Foley says of Sarandon. “What was appalling is that it was my story, almost to the tiniest detail.”
Foley acknowledges there were some discrepancies and “embellishments” to her story, small differences between her and Helen. Among them: Foley is deeply religious, but the character is areligious; the character smokes and swears but she doesn’t; the character is a single mother and she’s married; and, while both are nurses, the character is an ER nurse while she’s a nurse practitioner.
Maryam Keshavarz, the film’s director, expressed her admiration and support for Foley and suggested that her son’s story was among the inspirations for the film but not the only one. “We did a lot of research, read over 100 articles, saw a dozen documentaries, and [tried to] find a way to be very truthful to what these families went through … but have the freedom to weave in different themes that I was trying to examine,” she said, mentioning also the families of Daniel Pearl and Steven Sotloff, two other American journalists who were kidnapped and killed by terrorists.
She said that Sarandon’s character is “completely fictional,” adding, “I was using the real markers of what happened to these people but I fictionalized the characters. That’s what we do as writers: we take what we see in the real world and translate it into a world of fiction.”
Foley is upset that she was not given advance knowledge of the film and was not asked for her insight on Sarandon’s character.
“Nobody has ever reached out to me,” she says. “It’s very disappointing when people steal tragedies and try to make a profit out of them, very upsetting.”
Foley reached out to Keshavarz and met with her in New York in August. During the meeting, Keshavarz was “cordial” but insisted that the film was not based on her and her son’s story, Foley says.
She has also been in email contact over the last few weeks with representatives from Google owned-YouTube, which will offer the film through its YouTube Premium subscription service next year after it leaves theaters. The company backed the film’s director in saying that it was not based specifically on the Foley story.
“We have the deepest sympathy for Diane Foley and everyone whose loved ones have ever been hurt or lost to an act of terrorism,” YouTube told THR in a statement. “The film, Viper Club, is a fictional account that was inspired by different stories and accounts and highlights the important and brave work that journalists undertake in perilous regions around the world. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, over 600 reporters were killed in the last decade alone. These types of films are an important part of our national dialogue and add to the vital conversation about the role of journalism and the critical work that war reporters do.”
Neal Dodson, the film’s producer, echoes that message and adds, “Though the film is not about Diane or James Foley, he is a hero and Diane’s foundation does amazing work, which the film aims to shine a light on.”
When Foley pressed YouTube on the similarities between her family’s story and the plot of the film, she says the company ultimately offered a $30,000 donation to the foundation she runs in her son’s memory, the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. Initially, she says, the company offered her only a digital advertisement, and then offered $10,000 before tripling it.
Foley put off the decision on accepting the donation until after seeing the film, and confirms to THR that she will not accept it, considering all that Google can do for two issues near and dear to her heart: press freedom and the safety of journalists operating in war zones, particularly freelancers like her son who often don’t have the backing and protection of a corporate media company.
She’s calling for Google to step up and make amends for what she sees as something that’s “morally wrong,” though she said probably not legally impermissible.
“I would like Google, YouTube, the director, to make a generous donation to the training and the safety of freelance journalists, to the Foley Foundation that’s been named in Jim’s memory,” Foley says. “That would be the right thing to do, to show that they care. If they’re going to use our story, without asking permission of anyone, the least they can do is make amends that way.”
Google invited Foley to the film’s debut screening, but she declined and bought her own ticket because she didn’t want to be seen as condoning the film. The company also offered to fly her to California and see an advance copy of the film but required her to sign a nondisclosure agreement, standard operating procedure when dealing with unreleased material.
Coincidentally, Foley ran into Sarandon at the airport after attending the festival and pressed her on the similarities to her story. “She knew nothing about it, nothing,” she says of Sarandon. “She was surprised. She was clueless. She told me she’s going to watch the documentary and try to talk to Google.”
Keshavarz says she sympathizes with Foley and the cause she has dedicated her life to. “We’re passionate about the same things,” she says. “It’s a difficult situation and I hope it’s one that we can find common ground. All these journalists are heroes to me, and Diane’s work to support them through her Foundation is so much of what I believe in.”
Asked if she could have handled the situation differently, knowing Foley’s concerns, Keshavarz says, “I would love to have a conversation, and in hindsight, I should have let them know what I was doing and that I’m out there trying to tell stories about issues that matter to all of us. And I hope it’s not too late for that.”
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