The misunderstanding of U.S. journalist James Foley

Before his death in 2014, James Foley had set out to tell stories from Syria before the conflict had caught the world’s attention. Now, in a new documentary, Foley’s childhood friend Brian Oakes sets out to tell a more complete story of the man himself. 

By: /
April 6, 2016
James Foley
Photo courtesy of Jim — The James Foley Story/Hot Docs

James Wright Foley. A name revered in journalism circles, but one that most of the world would not come to know until his death at the hands of ISIS on Aug. 19, 2014.  

In the months that followed, his name would be scrawled across headlines of every major media organization around the globe depicting him as a courageous journalist, fool or hero. Despite the media frenzy surrounding his death, most people knew very little about the man in the orange jumpsuit brought to his knees by a terrorist group that was relatively unknown to the general population at the time.

A new documentary, Jim: The James Foley Story, which took home an audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has its international premiere this week in Toronto, offers an intimate view into the life of the American war correspondent whose death came to epitomize the brutality of the Islamic State.

Through interviews with family, friends and fellow journalists, director Brian Oakes, a childhood friend of Foley’s, creates a portrait of a man who lived to tell the stories of others and believed in the power of knowledge that only frontline journalism provides. In advance of this week’s screenings, Oakes spoke to OpenCanada about reclaiming Foley’s image, the importance of storytelling and understanding why journalists do what they do.

Describe your relationship with James.

Jim and I grew up together in a small little town called Wolfeboro in New Hampshire. We were childhood friends, we knew each other since first grade which was in 1980 or '81. We grew up doing very normal, American things like playing soccer and skiing. A very traditional kind of upbringing.

Of course, for me anyway, growing up with Jim in this small town, you keep in touch with all your old buddies. So after high school when we went to college – I went to Syracuse University and Jim went to Marquette College – we stayed in touch and we would visit each other and after college into our adult lives we remained in touch as well. Jim was a very kind of transient guy, so he went to Phoenix, Arizona after graduating from Marquette and did Teach for America, then he was in Chicago, then he went to school at University of Massachusetts, then he went to Medill-Northwestern, so he was kind of all over the map as far of where he lived. I was kind of more stationed in New York City. He would come through the city and we would visit and we remained friends.

How did you react when he decided to pursue a career as a war correspondent?

It was around 2008 when he decided he was going to be a conflict journalist and his first stint was embedded with the Indiana National Guard, so I was psyched. Jim was kind of constantly trying to figure out what he wanted to do. It was a little bit of a journey for him from teaching to fiction writing then to non-fiction writing then, of course, to being a journalist. For him, he loved to travel so going into conflict zones... He was always a courageous kind of guy even when we were little.

"He was telling stories of Syrian civilians during a time when we really didn't know what was going on."

When did you decide that you wanted to make this documentary?

It was about three months after Jim had been killed when I decided I wanted to do this film. The reasons for wanting to do that are kind of expanded, but the original intention was based on the fact that I was really, really discouraged about the way that Jim's image was being portrayed in the media. Not only in the media, but people were using [him] for political agendas and there wasn't really a focus on who he was, it was more of a focus on what that image meant to the world and how it could be utilized. I was really uncomfortable with that and I was saddened by that because I knew Jim. He was a close friend and I really felt it was an opportunity, and even a responsibility, to tell his story so people that were interested in knowing who he was would know that.

Ultimately, I really wanted to take back that image that the world came to know and take it back for Jim and re-contextualize it. That was why I wanted to do it, I really wanted to do that for my friend because he was not only an amazing person but he was a really great journalist.

I think finding out what he was doing over there in journalism and the stories he was trying to tell, that soon became an intent for the film and to kind of help Jim bring those stories – the stories he was trying to tell us – bring them up again. He was telling stories of the Syrian civilians and the hardships they were enduring in their country during a time when we really didn't know what was going on, it wasn't in the mainstream media. He was doing this a long time ago and now that we’re in this political landscape of the Syrian refugee crisis and the Islamic State and how Islam is being portrayed, those stories he was telling really resonate and are super relevant now so I wanted the film to bring those stories to light and show how Jim was concerned about it and compassionate about it. 

The documentary focused on James' story and wasn't overly political. Why did you make that choice?

The intention of this film was never to be a political driven film. The story was about Jim and his work and the work of journalists and how important they are. Why they do what they do. It is very intentionally apolitical because it just wasn't the narrative of my story, and not only that but they whole issue of the Islamic State hostage policies, whether it is domestic or foreign, the reasons why we're integrated into war zones, all those political topics are so complex and they are important, but they deserve their own five or 10-hour documentaries on their own.

As a long time friend of James’, what emotional toll did researching and directing this documentary have on you personally?

It was intense. I am kind of diving into Jim's life and exploring him as a character, finding out new things I didn't know about him. Interviewing the former hostages that he was with just opened up so many stories of enlightenment. Not knowing where he was for two years, whether he was alive or dead, and then finding out what was happening, solving that mystery of what happened to him through his fellow hostages was very, very emotional. I think that was a very intense undertaking because you really can't prepare yourself for what you're going to hear. Emotionally, that was tough but at the same time I knew that I was going to find out and I was glad that I did it. Having answers, I never use the word closure because I don't think there will ever be closure for this kind of event in your life, but just to have some answers and find out what happened. And it really is just nice to have that documentation.

Did any journalists that were taken hostage refuse to be part of the film?

Yeah. I interviewed six of the former hostages who are journalists and then I met with two others and I spent the day with them and they were happy to talk with me and answer questions and tell me anything I wanted to know. Super nice guys, really open. But, even though they were happy to do that, they were not wanting to go on camera and talk about that. It is very traumatic for them and to think about it and talk about it is really, really difficult.

"I don't think there will ever be closure for this kind of event."

Overall, what impact did your access and relationship with James and his family members have on the film?

I think when you watch a film, especially a documentary anyway, where the director has a relationship with the subject, a personal relationship or they knew them as a friend, as a viewer you watch the film in a different way. Which can be viewed as good and bad.

It's good in that there is a real intimacy there, and I felt a real comfortability with the subjects I talked to because I knew them or they were a direct connection to Jim. So, my interviews are very honest. If they feel comfortable with you and know you're not going to have an agenda or slant or trying to get certain sound bites out of them, people are much more honest with you and have a much more conversational approach. I think that opens up a lot of honesty and intimacy for interviews.

On the flip side I really had to be aware ... you don't want to be questioned on how you are portraying the person that you know because there's a very easy answer of going in and all the good stuff is out there, which I don't like because I think there is a falsity with that. Jim had lots of flaws and he made mistakes just like we all do and that was very important to come across in the film. When you see flaws and mistakes that people make in their lives, you can relate to that. You get a sense of honesty in the film and developing a character because you're not shying away from things that may be portrayed as negative. Being so close to Jim and the family, I was aware that in order to be honest you have to explore all that stuff.

It is a very heart-wrenching film. What are the most common reactions you've witnessed at screenings? 

It is really interesting to see how many people, although they are so familiar with the image of Jim when he was executed, don't know the story behind Syria at that time and what was going on. I've had a lot of just thank yous. [They are] thank yous based on thank you for sharing and opening my eyes to what was going on in Syria when Jim was there and the kind of road that he took, that he was on telling these stories up to his death.

It is a really eye opening experience for people to realize what's going on in Syria before all of this crisis happened. It has been amazing...that people are thankful to have that information. I think the other big thing that people take away from the film...a lot of people question why journalists do what they do. They question Jim, why he went back after being captured in Libya, why would you go back to a place like Syria? And I had the question too, you know, I don't understand why these guys risk their lives to do this. 

Ultimately, I think, the thesis of the film is answering that question. A lot of people after the screenings [said], it really helps me to understand how important journalism is, in this case conflict journalism. It is important that these journalists are in there telling these stories because if we don't know, if we don't have this information, if we don't have these photos or video or written word of what's going on how are we supposed to move forward. I think after the screenings that people have a much greater respect for journalists and what they are trying to do in these conflict zones. And that's great, because for me, that helps answer the question of why Jim decided to do what he did and go back.