Sundance: 'E-Team' Directors Follow Human Rights Activists Into the Heart of Syria

ETEAM Sundance Film Still - H 2014

ETEAM Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Katy Chevigny and Oscar-winner Ross Kauffman chronicle four investigators who put their lives on the line to expose the truth.

The Emergencies Team — or E-Team — is an elite squad of activist investigators who piece together mysteries in some of the most dangerous spots in the world. Whether they're corroborating evidence of chemical warfare with Syrian locals or sifting through smoldering buildings in Libya left behind by Gaddafi's regime, members of the organization are first to the scene in hopes of unearthing evidence that can be exposed to the world.

In their new documentary E-Team, which took home an award for its vérité cinematography at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, filmmakers Katy Chevigny (Deadline) and Ross Kauffman (the Oscar-winning Born into Brothels) follow four members of the E-Team as they traverse the globe to accomplish their missions: New York native Fred Abrahams, Peter Bouckaert, called the “James Bond of human-rights investigators” by Rolling Stone, and married couple Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang, who balance raising a son with their E-Team work.

Here, we talk to Chevigny and Kauffman about the demands of their embedded filming, the hardships faced by their subjects, and shaping a narrative out of 100 hours of footage.

The Hollywood Reporter: E-Team concludes as the Syrian conflict begins to flood American headlines. How was that so well-timed?

Katy Chevigny: With films like this, it's really challenging to stop filming when it's quote-unquote "done," because events in the world aren't done at a particular time. Fortunately, we had been editing with our great editor David Teague for the entire year last year, so Ross and I were deep in conversation with David and our producer Marilyn [Ness] about what kinds of things might serve as an ending to the film as we continued to accumulate footage. We knew we had the building blocks of the story. When things started heating up in terms of the international response to Syria last summer, with the chemical weapons attack and the very intense international response to that from the U.S. and Russia, the E-Team was so intimately involved, we made a concerted effort to get as much footage around that as we could. I called Ross and said, "You have to get on a plane and go to Paris right now." 

THR: How does that affect your lives? You filmed the movie for two years — that's a long time to be on call.

Ross Kauffman: You'll have to ask our spouses.

Chevigny: Our families are relieved to have us back for awhile. It's been a very absorbing process. We probably had tunnel vision. When you make a film over a few years, to be honest... Ross and I don't get paid enough to focus on this film alone. That makes it more challenging. Often, we'd get a call to go somewhere and Ross would have to make a difficult decision between a well-paying commercial job and our film.

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THR: Did the demands of the shoot require two directors or did you decide to collaborate for creative reasons?

Kauffman: Katy and I have wanted to work together on something and when we approached the subject, we thought it was a good one to collaborate on. One, because it's a sprawling project that would take two years and it's hard to keep up that energy alone. Katy and I have both co-directed before with other people. We know the value of feeding off each other -- when one is down the other can be up. And personally speaking, I like to work with other people and have creative input. No pun intended, but I like working with a team.

Was the Human Rights Watch eager to have a film crew follow the E-Team and reveal the scenarios in which they work?

Chevigny: There was some internal concern from Human Rights Watch. This was the first time the Human Rights Watch granted access to an independent film crew. So they were less vulnerable to Ross' and my interpretation of events and their work. It was a big leap of faith on their part. Something could go wrong or we'd portray them in an unfavorable light -- that's happened from time to time when organizations have given filmmakers access. I think they're happy with the end, because it will shed light on the work that's near and dear to their work.

THR: Your main duo, Anna and Ole, are both coworkers in the field and husband and wife. How did that dynamic affect their work?

Kauffman: We spent weeks and weeks with them, in the field and in their home. If they started screaming, I didn't see it and I was with them. They have a unique relationship, where their work and their lives are totally intertwined. I think they both complement each other well, not only in terms of their talents, but in their personalities. Anna is a fiery Russian and Ole is this calm, laid back, intelligent Norwegian. They work very well together at home and in the field. I think they said one time that it gets a little tiring because they might wake up in the morning and the first thing they talk about is air strikes in Syria, where most married couples would talk about the gas bill.

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THR: How important does genre and cinematic language become when turning raw footage into a movie? At times, E-Team operates like a political thriller — but it's real.

Kauffman: I think that was one of the fun parts of making this film for us. We get to play a little with the investigative genre. Just a touch -- it's still a documentary. But it's fun to play with those elements: the mission, the investigation. Katy and I are trying to tell stories. The word 'documentary' is sometimes frowned upon. Not by us, but by our culture. And we're just trying to tell great stories. Tapping into genre helps tell that story.

Chevigny: I think we thought about it at two points: When we're getting ready and choosing what to film, we were thinking along the lines of, "Let's make this as much of an exciting adventure as we can."And in the editing room, David Teague was selecting from hundreds of hours of footage the storylines and scenes that he found most dramatic, that really gave you that behind-the-scenes flavor, what you don't get to see in the field.

THR: The first scene is one of those moments, where conversation is interrupted by the sounds of close-proximity bombing outside. Who was there shooting? It's startling.

Kauffman: It startled me too. When we went into Libya and Syria, while it would have been great to have Katy there, we had to keep a really small footprint. In that particular case, it was me, but Rachel Beth Anderson was in Syria a lot of the time and shot some of the most incredible footage in the film. We also had a guy named Jim Foley who did some of the Libya filming. It was a group effort being on the ground and filming. So we have to be ready for these moments. But at the end of the day, we get to leave. People on the ground, the victims and the witnesses, the people who live in these countries, are the people who are really at risk.