If Batman lost his cape, car and fortune, and had to get a job in the real world, he would probably work for Human Rights Watch. (After maybe going back to college to get a doctorate in human rights law and international relations.) Fighting crime of the macro kind, the organisation takes on governments, dictators and dodgy regimes to highlight human rights atrocities worldwide.
In a new film by Academy Award-winner Ross Kauffman and Emmy Award-nominee Katy Chevigny, Human Rights Watch’s emergency team, or “E-Team” are positioned as real-life 21st century superheroes. They swoop in after these alleged acts have occurred and gather evidence to determine what happened and to hold those responsible to account.
Dead-pan New Yorker and Milosovic nemisis Fred Abrahams and Stanford law war-veteran and weapons expert Peter Bouckaert team up in post-Gaddafi Libya to take stock of the bloodbath. Visiting sites of what look like mass killings, they photograph and probe, question and collect everything they can to help build a case against the perpetrators.
Fred and Peter have teamed up before, perhaps most notably in Kosovo where they documented forced expulsions, mass killings and sexual abuse against ethnic Albanians. Their evidence helped to support the case against Slobodan Milosovic at his trial at the International Criminal Court in 2002. One scene of archive footage shows Fred sitting in court, under the steely glare of former Serbian president, calmly yet forcefully denouncing the accused’s defense testimony.
Passionate Russian émigré Anna Neistat and her calm and collected husband Ole Solvang are on another mission: to document the crimes against humanity unfolding in war-torn Syria. In the car on the way to the border, Anna and Ole share private glances filled with joy. It turns out that Anna is pregnant with their child, as she heads to one of the most dangerous places on earth. Her maternal glow does not deter her or Ole from the job in hand, testimony to their complete dedication to the cause.
Their nail-biting scenes of crossing the border and walking through bomb-blasted towns are interspersed with relaxed family moments in Anna and Ole’s Parisian apartment, where Anna’s twelve-year old son plays with computer games and tries to get his head around his mother’s unconventional job.
The filmmakers are at pains to point out on their website that this is an entirely independent film and its intention is not to “lionize” Human Rights Watch or produce anything that can be described as “worthy”. They endeavor to add complexity to the characters by filming them at home in down-time, capturing the ups and downs of family life as well as the giddy highs and terrifying lows of life in a war zone.
These are among the most moving scenes, as the price of such an extreme career becomes apparent. Anna visits her parents in their compact flat in Russia, their pride and good humour veiling an obvious sense of concern for their daughter. What emerges in an intensely intimate and human portrayal of these new-age superheroes, fighting crimes against humanity one piece of evidence at a time.