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3 out of 4 stars

Title
Jim: The James Foley Story
Directed by
Brian Oakes
Genre
Documentary
Country
USA
Language
English

In the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, Spanish photojournalist Manu Brabo compares the pointlessness of his life at home with the rush he gets from doing something meaningful on the front lines of a war zone.

James Foley, the American video reporter who was beheaded by the Islamic State in 2014, also seemed to want meaning, to make a difference in the world. He had previously worked as a teacher to young offenders; covering the civil war in Libya, he organized the delivery of a second-hand ambulance to the hospital where he would film doctors fighting to save the bombing victims who had arrived squashed into private cars.

He is described by friends and colleagues – including several of the 18 other Western journalists with whom he spent more than a year in captivity – as an optimistic and selfless character, determined to help the victims of war by showing their faces to the world. He emerges as a hugely energetic, social and well-meaning person, but also a bit of a loner.

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Foley was looking for something; that must be why, after being captured by the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya and held for 44 days in 2011, he gave up a desk job with GlobalPost, the website for which he had previously freelanced, and headed for Syria.

It was a decision that clearly pained and even astounded some friends and members of his large and tight-knit Catholic family in New England, but the strength of this documentary is how it gradually reveals the purpose of his work. The first half of the film deals with his background, what happened in Libya and how he got to Syria; the second half contains a particularly poignant account of his time in captivity told by several of the colleagues who were in the same cell with him.

As his parents, Diane and John Foley, discuss their reactions to his career choice and their long, unsuccessful battle to free him, they seem to be retelling their own gradual awakening to the truth that their son was not a young adventurer, but rather a professional journalist.

The film culminates with a passionate defence from American reporter Clare Morgana Gillis, who was also arrested in Libya: If we have any idea what is going on in Syria, it is thanks to the correspondents.

Directed by Foley's childhood friend Brian Oakes, the doc does raise some difficult issues – albeit very tactfully. First, as the television networks and big newspapers have scaled back their foreign operations, war correspondents are increasingly young, inexperienced freelancers with little support in the field. Foley's colleagues in Libya explain that the only way they could afford to get to the front was to hitch rides with the rebels, and one bemoans Foley's practice of sometimes providing clients with footage for free. War corresponding has always been an ethical quagmire, but this film hints that Internet journalism is further complicating the issues.

A second troubling question that goes unanswered is whether the American authorities did enough in the first months after Foley's disappearance and whether their recommended strategy of keeping quiet about his disappearance was the right one. Foley's parents refrain from blaming anyone, but you can't help but wonder whether, if the Americans had better intelligence, someone might have negotiated Foley's release before the Islamic State eventually got hold of him and realized his potential usefulness as a tool of propaganda.

Toward the end of the film, there are several scenes at a memorial his family held after his horribly publicized death; under the circumstances, it must have felt particularly important, a way of remembering the real man after IS had turned him into a grisly stunt and the media had made his death a news story. This film does similar work, reclaiming Foley as a journalist and a human being.

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Jim: The James Foley Story has its international premiere at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto on April 6. hotdocs.ca

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