Netflix UK film review: Jim: The James Foley Story
Josh Slater-Williams | On 02, Sep 2016
Director: Brian Oakes
Cast: James Foley, Katie Foley, John Foley Sr.
Watch Jim: The James Foley Story online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Sometimes, the best way to reclaim an image is to remove it from the picture completely. Via an opening title card, Brian Oakes’ documentary Jim: The James Foley Story states outright that it will not feature the culminating moments of the video that spawned this film’s creation.
That video, which travelled the world in 2014, is the means by which many first came to know the acronym ISIS. In it, kneeling, kidnapped American conflict journalist James Foley, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, is forced to recite ISIS propaganda against a backdrop of desert somewhere in Syria, as a hooded executioner stands to his side, before eventually beheading the man. Oakes, an old family friend, is, above all, making a concerted effort to reclaim the life of James Foley; to highlight the human being, take his death and transform it into more than a tool of terrorism.
The set-up is your traditional talking heads doc with little to no deviation from the standard interview style, but the stock formula is forgivable here, as the trick up Oakes’ sleeve is in the distinct groups of people interviewed. The first of these is James’ family (who all call him Jim), who are remarkably open and honest about their loss, and evidently at ease with Oakes, since so many refer to the off-camera director by his first name. Their articulations are concerned with filling us in on all the background details of Jim’s life; of the little nuances to his behaviour over the years that made his decision to go from teaching to conflict zone photography somehow palatable to those who knew him, despite how they would still go on to struggle understanding why he would repeatedly go back to war-torn areas at the expense of his safety – prior to his capture in Syria in 2012, he had already spent some time in captivity in Libya.
Their portrait of Jim is one of a restless soul, aching to get back out but always concerned with the progression and state of mind of people when he was back home with them. This trait is carried over to the anecdotes of his photographer colleagues, who paint a picture of a man always eager to do something, always wanting to do well by the innocents he was documenting. A quiet soul trying to find hope in the horror, or provide it himself, such as in one instance where he helped raise money for an under-funded Syrian hospital in order to get them an actual ambulance.
The final group of interviewees, whose presence is relegated to the film’s back half, is made up of fellow journalists, who were held captive with Foley in Syria but released before his execution. Even in the midst of despair (Foley was in captivity for two years), the man acted as a bright light in the darkness, creating games for them to play and repeatedly sacrificing himself for others, receiving a brunt of the random punishment bestowed upon them by their captors.
That these men whose lives have been irrevocably altered by months or years of physical agony can speak so fondly and openly of this figure, who was with them in a scenario most would surely be unable or unwilling to speak of in any candid manner, says wonders. With them, and with everyone Oakes speaks to, as well as with archive recordings of Jim, a man’s life is successfully rescued from the narrative his killers imposed upon him.
Jim: The James Foley Story is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.