Sundance ’16: “Jim” doc “re-contextualizes” Foley’s image

Filmmaker Brian Oakes talks to realscreen about the life and legacy of his childhood friend for his documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, which enjoys its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday (January 23).
January 21, 2016

Realscreen kicks off our Sundance coverage with Brian Oakes’ Jim: The James Foley Story, in which the director recaptures the life of a childhood friend by altering an enduring and grisly image. Jim enjoys its world premiere at the festival on Saturday (January 23) in Park City, Utah.

Brian Oakes‘ name has swirled around the film and documentary world for more than a decade. The New York-based Oakes has been linked to such projects as Inequality for AllFreakonomics and Bobby Fischer Against the World as a motion graphics designer, but his feature doc debut only came in November 2014, when he started work on a profoundly personal project.

The impetus behind Oakes’ Jim: The James Foley Story came three months earlier when he witnessed his childhood friend, American photojournalist James “Jim” Foley, clad in an orange jumpsuit and publicly executed by a masked ISIS fighter on August 19, 2014.

The doc, from New York production outfit Kunhardt Films, will enjoy its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday (January 23), followed by a February 6 television broadcast on HBO, which acquired the film earlier this month. It offers an intimate glimpse into the life and legacy of the 40-year-old GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse journalist, who was kidnapped by the Islamic State extremist group in 2012 and held captive for two years.

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Jim: The James Foley Story director Brian Oakes. (Photo courtesy of Clair Popkin)

Driven by a need to share the story of his friend since the early 1980s, Oakes (pictured, right) laces together news footage, re-enactments and intimate interviews with family, friends, colleagues and fellow hostages in an effort to “re-contextualize” the image of Foley seared into the minds of the American public.

“If you know who Jim was, you see that image again and it takes on a completely different meaning,” Oakes says in a phone call with realscreen from New York. “He’s no longer this symbol of what they made of him, but there’s a person behind that – a very special person who was doing really amazing things.

“I felt I had a responsibility to him because I didn’t want anyone who didn’t know Jim to tell his story – that was really important for me.”

It’s for these reasons, Oakes says, that a discussion about whether to present Foley’s execution to the audience wasn’t necessary. Instead, the doc opens with a message that reads, “This film does not show the execution of Jim” in an attempt to alleviate any tension viewers may have going into Jim.

With the help of Foley’s mother, Diana, and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which strives to support the freedom of the press and advocacy for basic human rights, Oakes was connected to fellow hostages Daniel Rye Ottosen, a Danish photojournalist, and French journalists Nicolas Hénin and Didier François. Through his conversations with these former detainees, the director uncovered the maltreatment and persecution that occurred during Foley’s two-year imprisonment.

Drawing from his background in graphics and animation, Oakes would spend tireless hours pouring over the stylistic elements of re-enactments, as well as their utilization, to accurately depict the stories of what had happened to his friend while he and others were held captive by the militant jihadists.

“It’s a very surreal and unbelievable world to try and imagine what these guys went through, so I didn’t want to try to recreate that,” Oakes explains. “What I wanted to do instead was help evoke the emotions of the stories that these guys were telling and to put some context to what [they] went through in captivity.”

The foundation would also give the filmmaker the opportunity to interview such colleagues as freelance photographer Nicole Tung, who worked alongside Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in an attempt to reveal the complexities of the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as the final moments leading to Foley’s capture.

“Jim was so well-liked and well-respected by his colleagues and peers that it was simply a matter of reaching out to these folks who were like, ‘Anything for Jim. What do you need?’ The freelance journalism community was so open to help and provide footage and photographs for the film,” Oakes says.”I was really lucky in that sense.”

Ultimately, the director hopes the timely film will shine a light on Foley’s three-year journey to expose the actions of the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that have displaced droves of Syrian refugees from their homeland.

“He was doing these stories on Syrians three years ago and no one was really paying attention to what was going on over there,” he says. “I wanted to bring these stories to the surface and to help [Jim] carry on those stories because I think they’re really relevant and important now in today’s world.”

  • Jim: The James Foley Story screens during the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday (January 23) at noon at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre in Park City, Utah, and again between January 26 and 30. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.
  • Check out a trailer for the doc below:

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.