Well-known both for its political activities and for its long-running film festival, Human Rights Watch becomes the subject of a documentary itself in E-Team. Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s film isn’t a broad portrait of the organization.
Instead, it focuses on four Europe-based case workers on the HRW emergency team: Anna Neistat; her husband, Ole Solvang; Peter Bouckaert; and Fred Abrahams. Starting in 2011, they investigated human rights abuses in Syria and Libya. Initially, these are presented almost as if E-Team were a fictional adventure film and Neistat a female Indiana Jones.
The emphasis on the team’s daring amid mass chaos seems a bit off: This threatens to become yet another film about white Americans and Europeans telling the stories of Third World people. But the rest of the film does much to redeem that dubious trope: E-Team is ultimately about activists trying to summarize the crimes of Syria’s Assad regime in a way that will inspire the world’s media and governments to take action.
The results are sometimes maddening: A Moscow press conference leads to accusations of HRW being part of an American conspiracy. Abrahams points to his experiences in Kosovo in the late ’90s and the eventual prosecution of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic as success stories for the organization. However, it’s much harder to put an upbeat face on three years of slaughter in Syria, all documented by the E-Team. You sense them struggling to remain positive, even as the very existence of this film suggests that many people care deeply about the work of Human Rights Watch.