'E-team' explores the human side of Human Rights Watch

Feb 28, 2014

E-Team members Ole Solvang and Anna Neistat met while detained in Georgia in 2008, and later married.
E-Team members Ole Solvang and Anna Neistat met while detained in Georgia in 2008, and later married.
Credit E-TEAM the movie, LLC

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

Offering unprecedented access into the hidden operations of Human Rights Watch, the film E-Team follows four members of the organization's investigative unit. Known collectively as the Emergencies team, the group crisscrosses the globe, risking their lives in order to expose gross human rights abuses, and hold perpetrators accountable.

Using a cinéma vérité style, directors Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny follow the members to Libya and Syria. In addition to tracking the team's boots on the ground work, the film explores the personal lives of the members and their relationships.

I spoke with directors Ross Kaufman and Kate Chevigny about what went into making the film.

Why did you make this film?

KC: [Ross and I] have known each other for a long time and we were looking for a project to work on together. And we were aware of Human Rights Watch's work, but we had no idea whether their work would be good for a film. It wasn't until we met with the members of the E-team and had dinner with them. They were such incredible characters. They were the kind of people you meet and think there should be a movie about these guys.

Who are the members?

KC: They're kind of like a human rights mod squad. Anna's the Russian, very tough, chain smoking, and also never takes no for an answer -- she's like the fiery Russian.

RK: Fred's a nice guy from New York. He's just a sweet funny, affable person who has a goofy sense of humor. And then you play that against Peter who's this tough guy who's originally from Belgium. And Peter can definitely rub people sometimes the right way and sometimes the wrong way. And then there's Ole who is married to Anna. Ole is a very placid, relaxed Norweigian. So the combination of all these characters together is what Katy and I really reacted to. Any one of these characters would have made a great film, but the combination of all of them really just added to the sense of a very diverse team.  

How did you get Human Rights Watch on board?

RK: When we got together with Human Rights Watch, they were very clear. They knew our work and they really knew us in a way. And they felt like we would be able to tell a story about their organization, so they granted us access.

It's really important to understand that we were very clear with Human Rights Watch. We said we needed to have full creative control. We have to be able to show your organization warts and all.

What challenges did you encounter when making this film?

KC: It's very challenging making a film that's in cinéma vérité style like this, where we didn't know what the story was, we didn't know what was going to happen in Libya and Syria. And yet we had to make judgment calls on whether or not to spend the money and resources to get on a plane and go to Libya, Syria, Paris, and do some filming. So you're taking these leaps of faith throughout.