‘I didn’t quite know what I was going to get myself into emotionally,” said Brian Oakes, the director of the heartbreaking HBO documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, which will be shown at the Docaviv Galil Film Festival, which runs from November 8 to 12.
The festival, which will take place in Ma’alot-Tarshiha, features 30 documentaries from Israel and around the world, as well as seminars, musical performances and other events.
Foley was an American journalist who was kidnapped in Syria by Islamic State and beheaded in one of the videotaped killings released by the group. A worthy subject for a documentary by any standard. But Oakes had a distinctly personal reason to make the movie: Foley was his lifelong best friend.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘closure.’ I don’t think you can have closure with those kinds of things,” he said in a Skype interview from New York. “But making the movie was a pretty cathartic experience for me.”
For Oakes, it was a way to come together with the Foley family to celebrate his friend’s life. Foley’s dedication to journalism, charm, love of life and tenacity are the focus of the film. His death is not, and the movie opens with a title saying that the video of the murder will not be shown, although the now iconic image of Foley kneeling before his captor is.
“I wanted to reclaim the image and re-contextualize it,” said Oakes. “I wanted people to understand who he was and what he was doing as a journalist. I wanted to reclaim that image for Jim.”
The Foley family supported Oakes in his project, giving extremely candid interviews about their grief and their enduring love for their son.
“The Foley family were obviously an integral part of the process, and they were willing to give me their time and tell their stories,” he said.
Oakes, who has worked in the movie industry for years in visual effects and animation, chose his late friend as the subject of his first film as director, in part because “I was in the business and I knew that someone would be telling this story and I thought, ‘I want to be the one to do this’... The subject is near and dear to me.”
Another motivation was to understand his friend better. He and Foley grew up in a tranquil town in New Hampshire, and Foley was one of five children in a closeknit Catholic family. After studying creative writing in college, he went to work in the Teach for America program and tried other jobs, then switched to journalism.
In Jim, his family and friends describe how once he got into journalism, he seemed to have found himself, although they were apprehensive that he was drawn to the extraordinarily dangerous world of conflict journalism. Foley freelanced for different news outlets and didn’t receive the budget and support that staff reporters for the more established media did.
In 2011, he was kidnapped by Gaddafi loyalists in Libya, beaten and held for more than a month. His relieved family was overjoyed at his safe return but bewildered and worried when he returned to the Middle East shortly afterwards, to Libya and later to Syria. He was kidnapped in 2012 by Islamic State, a group almost no one had heard of at the time, and held for two years before his murder.
“For two years, we didn’t know where he was, if he was alive or dead,” Oakes said.
Talking to some of his fellow prisoners who managed to survive enabled Oakes to put together the missing pieces of his friend’s last years.
“He would always light up a room when he came in, he was super friendly and hospitable, even in the circumstance of an ISIS prison... He was a beacon for people.
That’s something that was always with him,” he said.
One aspect of Foley’s life in captivity did surprise some who knew him, and that was his apparent conversion to Islam, which The New York Times
reported in an article after his death. In the movie, Oakes explores the question of whether Foley formally converted to Islam.
“There is not a black and white answer, there are levels of gray,” Oakes explained, adding that when Foley was held captive in both Libya and Syria, he would join the mostly Muslim prisoners when they prayed. “He was an experiential person; it was really powerful for him to pray with other people.”
Nicolas Henin, a fellow captive, told Oakes that “Jim was a man of faith, and it didn’t matter which God you believed in... That’s how Jim understood faith.”
The story of Foley’s bravery and generosity in terrifying circumstances inspires Oakes, as does the Foley family’s strength and grace under pressure. Foley’s mother, Diane, does not dwell on the failed rescue attempt by the US government and the government’s refusal to let the family pay a ransom but focuses on a foundation the family established to honor her son’s memory.
The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation advocates for journalists’ safety and helps hostages’ families.
“Jim’s story is uplifting for me, horrific as it is. You have to look at what you can take out of it, and I take the joy that Jim felt in his life and his work,” said Oakes.For more information about Docaviv Galil, go to the festival website at www.docaviv.co.il. To contribute to the Foley Foundation, go to www.jamesfoleyfoundation.org.