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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

Director Brian Oakes Celebrates the Life of Jim Foley in His New HBO Documentary [Exclusive] 

Director Brian Oakes Celebrates the Life of Jim Foley in His New HBO Documentary [Exclusive]
Photo Credit: Simon Klingert/HBO
Photo Credit: Simon Klingert/HBO

So many people know the name James Foley. But Jim, as he was known to family and friends, wouldn’t have been happy to be the story. His life was always about telling the stories he discovered and reported on from the front lines, but his public execution left behind a legacy. Enter childhood friend Brian Oakes. Brian felt a responsibility to show the world what type of person Jim Foley really was before the Islamic State made an example of him.

In Jim: The James Foley Story, we see Jim’s life through intimate interviews with his family, friends and fellow journalists — while fellow hostages reveal never-before-heard details of his captivity with a chilling immediacy that builds suspense. Made with unparalleled access, Jim: The James Foley Story is a harrowing chronicle of bravery, compassion and pain at the dawn of America’s war with ISIS.

I had the chance to talk exclusively to director Brian Oakes earlier this week. We discussed the importance of Jim’s story, how conflict journalism is necessary in our society and what Brian hopes audiences take away from the film.

Photo Credit: Clair Popkin/HBO
Photo Credit: Clair Popkin/HBO

TV GOODNESS: I know you have a personal connection to this story because you knew Jim. When you were making this film, did you try to be objective or do you think this story has more power because of your point of view?

Brian Oakes: “I think that knowing the director of the film knew the subject, it makes people watch the film in a little bit of a different way. I knew Jim since I was 7 years old. There’s a comfort level built in already with the family and his friends and ultimately his colleagues and the former hostages. Because I knew Jim they trusted me and they knew I wasn’t coming in with some sort of agenda or angle. I think that serves the film well in a way that it feels very intimate. The people I was able to talk to are very comfortable with talking to me. I think that benefits the film as opposed to someone coming in who didn’t know Jim and is trying to figure it out with no history or foundation.”

TV GOODNESS: I’m curious about the process of getting this film made. As you said, because you did know Jim maybe it was easier to get people to talk to you on camera. But what were the challenges of taking this perspective?

Brian: “There’s a lot of great stories I have of our history together. My initial ideas were to put in, ‘Oh, this is a really funny story. We should put it into the film. It’s about our childhood.’ My team didn’t know Jim, so they were able to curb some things that just would not work and look at it from the perspective of an outsider saying, ‘Yeah, that’s really great for you, but as far as the film is concerned, that’s not gonna work.’

The challenge was to just shape that narrative that was just going to both be the intimate portrayal of someone who knew Jim but at the same time be relevant to the story and what was important to tell about him and what he was doing a journalist and what happened to him.”

TV GOODNESS: The threat of ISIS or ISIL is getting a lot of attention right now as well as the refugee crisis. There are so many people who fear terrorist attacks at home. Is it because of that you felt now was the right time to tell this story? Or does that fit in at all?

Brian: “It really had nothing to do with ISIL or the Islamic State. My motivation was more about how Jim was being portrayed and how his legacy and the image of Jim was being used in the media. The image of James Foley, which [is] how he became known, kneeling in the desert in an orange jumpsuit, was a highly politicized or propagated in ways that I, sometimes, was very uncomfortable with.

So, I felt this responsibility to Jim and his friends that I didn’t want for him to be known in that way. I wanted to re-contextualize that image and, in a way, claim it back for its original purpose. Because once you get to know Jim, learn who he was and what he was doing, you see that image and it takes on a completely different meaning and that, more than the idea of ISIS, who is essentially a background character, was more my motivation for the film.”

Photo Credit: Nicole Tung/HBO
Photo Credit: Nicole Tung/HBO

TV GOODNESS: I like that some of the journalists in the film talk about the “siren song” of the frontline and the importance of conflict journalism. Can you talk about that?

Brian: “I think the thesis of the film is ultimately trying to answer the question of why Jim and why conflict journalists go back to these areas and why they feel it’s important to tell these stories and risk their lives in these incredibly hostile environments, these war zones. For us outsiders looking in, sometimes we just can’t believe why they continue to do this, which was a question that I asked myself and was unfortunately never really able to ask Jim.

And that question was asked by a lot of people in almost an accusatory way, so I wanted to answer that for him and through the conflict journalists like Nicole Tung and Manu Brabo and Clare Gillis and Zac Baillie who are in the film. They serve as surrogates for Jim and they answer that question, ‘What is that siren song and why does it pull you back?’ Ultimately there’s many answers to that question and I think it affects journalists in different ways, but that was definitely one of the questions that I hopefully answered in the film when people watch.”

TV GOODNESS: I think you do. When you were talking to some of the other journalists who were in captivity with Jim, I thought you did a great job of making us feel not necessarily like we were there, but I really liked how they told Jim’s story through their own experiences. Can you talk about how important it was to include that in the film?

Brian: “It was extremely important. I started the film in late November, early December 2014 and I went to Europe in February. The former hostage interviews are fairly early on in the process and they’re extremely important to the narrative because the film is two halves. The first half is from the point of view of Jim. The second half is the point of view of the people who were with him.

To get that perspective, that was the discovery process. The second half is what I didn’t know about Jim, what none of us knew. It was filling in these two years of mystery that we lived with. We didn’t know where he was, we didn’t know who had him, if he was alive or dead so it was very important for me personally telling the story and understanding what Jim what going through during captivity and what he endured and what he overcame. It’s riveting.

Behind the scenes, Michael Foley and Katie Foley, Jim’s siblings, were able to come with me to Paris and Barcelona for these interviews and just that alone, it has nothing to do with the film, but just for them to come and meet them as well and hear their stories was really almost more powerful of an experience than making the film itself. So, that was really great.”

TV GOODNESS: Jim comes across as someone who’s really likable and we understand, I think, the reasons he did what he did. But having the perspective of those other journalists talk about him and how he was with them was really important and it moved me.

Brian: “I’m glad. As tragic as the story is, I really wanted the film to be triumphant and have some hope because nothing we can do is gonna bring Jim back, but I think his story and how he lived his life, what he was doing for all of his mistakes and all of his flaws, which we all have, which makes him very relatable, I think the way he carried himself is a triumph.

I look at him and it makes me look in the mirror and think about humanity and good versus evil and what that means and how important it is for us as civilization to understand what’s going on in the world — bigger theme, which really percolates to the surface of this really small story of one person.”

TV GOODNESS: I haven’t seen Jim’s execution and I hope I never will, but was there ever a question about whether or not you should include it and why did you decide not to?

Brian: “There was never a question. I haven’t watched it, so it never crossed my mind to include that. It’s not what the film was about. This is about Jim’s life and not his death. That piece of footage is a recruiting tool for the Islamic State, it’s a piece of propaganda so it really never crossed my mind to put it in the film. And, quite frankly, at the very beginning of the film I say it right up front: you’re not gonna see this. For that very reason, you decided you’re not gonna watch that video so why would I want to take that choice away from you. It would be irresponsible of me, I think, as a filmmaker to do that.

And that’s tension and anxiety that I wouldn’t want people to have going into the film. I think telling everybody upfront, ‘This is not a film about this,’ hopefully relieves some anxiety for people so they can withstand watching the film, knowing that they’re not going to have to deal with someone like that.”

TV GOODNESS: If there’s one thing you want or hope for people to take away from watching this film, and I think you touched on it a little bit, what is it?

Brian: “There’s a bunch of things, of course. As I was saying earlier, these bigger themes of humanity and how we treat people and what humans are capable of is really something we need to realize and understand.

On a more specific level, I think what I really learned and I hope people learn is how important journalism is right now and freelance journalism in particular. What they’re doing to try to bring us stories- there’s a saying that frontline journalists, they write the first draft of history. How are we able to move forward as a civilization if we don’t see what’s going on? We don’t see these videos and we don’t see these pictures of how bad the world can be. If we’re blind to that, then that’s dangerous. We really want to support journalists in their cause and helping them bring us these stories because I think it’s really important.”

Edited for space and content.

Jim: The James Foley Story premieres Saturday, February 6th at 9/8c on HBO.

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