Documenting the Documenters in E-TEAM


Katy Chevigny in The Brooklyn Quarterly:

In making documentary films, we frequently use the word “document” as a verb. When we write treatments of our proposed films, we say things like: “In this film, we will document the work of human rights investigators,” and what we mean is that we are going to record the sound and image of events taking place and the resulting work will be a document of certain events.

When Ross Kauffman and I co-directed our film E-TEAM, we were in the unusual position of following a group of intrepid emergency researchers at Human Rights Watch (the film’s title is their nickname) as they worked to gather evidence on alleged human rights violations. You could say we were documenting the documenters.

Following the researchers and their work took us to remote locations in Syria and Libya in order to make a portrait of the E-Team’s extraordinary work. But some people were puzzled by our approach. In fact, some colleagues asked us, why don’t you just film the events in Syria themselves? Why film other people taking notes and asking questions?

I was initially surprised by this question. Eventually, I realized that moviegoers have absorbed the idea that the camera itself is a documenting agent, and expect the people doing the documenting—in this case the E-Team members—to be left out of the picture. In fact, this extra layer that we included, in portraying how a group of investigators might go about the act of documenting, helped to shine a light on how fraught and difficult the act of documentation often is.

It’s worth taking a minute to talk about the differences between what we as artists did documenting events in the film and what the E-Team does documenting human rights abuses. The E-Team members we followed—Fred, Peter, Anna and Ole—are searching for “evidence” to “corroborate” key “facts” that they have “documented.” Ross and I never use words like “evidence” or “corroborate” in our work, and we rarely use the word “facts,” because we see ourselves as storytellers first and foremost, and we are aware that our artistic judgment is subjective.

More here.