‘Jim: The James Foley Story’ Reveals the Journalist Behind the Infamous ISIS Beheading Video

We spoke with the director and the late journalist's friends and family about the new documentary and James Foley's legacy.
February 1, 2016, 7:15pm
James Foley. Photo by Nicole Tung/courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

Since his 2014 murder by ISIS captors, disseminated worldwide in a grisly and raw piece of terrorist video propaganda, James Foley has become a household name. The image of Foley kneeling before the camera, looking battered yet resolute in an orange jumpsuit in front of a backdrop of desert and a black-clad, knife-wielding executioner, has since come to symbolize the current conflict against the extremist Islamic caliphate.

But before he became "James Foley," less a person and more of a politicized talking point for pundits and presidential hopefuls alike, he was Jim—journalist, humanitarian, brother, son, and friend. The new documentary Jim: The James Foley Story seeks to reveal that Foley through the impact of his life (and death) on anybody within his orbit. Directed by Brian Oakes, a childhood friend of Foley's who grew up with him in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, the Sundance-award-winning film features personal, touching commentary from Foley's family and friends, allowing for a portrait of the man through those who knew him best.

I became friends with Jim Foley when I interviewed him about his experience being grabbed by Gaddafi loyalists outside of Brega in Libya in 2011. Jim had been reporting and filming dispatches for the Boston-based news outlet GlobalPost. He later returned to the Middle East, to the disbelief and understandably frustrated shock of his family, chronicling what was then a still-developing story about war crimes and conflict-zone atrocities against the Syrian people. After the interview, I stayed in touch with Jim via email and Skype, and got a series of instant messages from him just before he was kidnapped in Syria in 2012.

When it came to reporting, with Jim, it was always about the people. "That's what Jim cared most about," said Philip Balboni, the CEO of GlobalPost. "Telling the stories of people affected by war. My regrets about not being able to free him is something I'll live with the rest of my life."

Jim's brother Michael said all four Foley siblings and the family screened the final Sundance cut of the film at the festival in Utah. "There were a lot of tears, really powerful stuff," he told me. In front of the family sat Daniel Rye and Pierre Torres, two of the hostages imprisoned with Foley who were later released. Neither had seen the film yet, and Michael, seeing them visibly moved, asked them for an honest assessment of the film afterward, particularly the interment reenactment scenes. They said it was spot-on.

I recently sat down with Brian Oakes in Manhattan to discuss the film, Jim's legacy, and the truly human side of Foley that continues to shine a light through the tragic darkness surrounding his fate.

VICE: What is the main difference in scenarios between Jim's Libya kidnapping and the Syrian kidnapping?
Brian Oakes: When Jim was captured in Libya, we knew who took him. We knew it was the Gaddafi regime, we knew where to focus our efforts, who had him, and [family and friends] were very vocal about the fact that he had been taken. [Syria] was a completely different story. We didn't know who took him. ISIS didn't exist yet—the caliphate wasn't created until almost a year later. So we didn't know if it was the Assad government, the many jihadist groups that existed, the mob, or an offshoot of the Free Syrian Army.

Did you set out to politicize the film at all?
The film is purposefully apolitical. I don't consider myself having any expertise to take on the very complex political layers that this story brings up. It's a minefield. My goal was to focus on Jimmy, because I think a story on Jim—if [it] were to go political—I don't think he'd want that. He was always very positive, and I think he continues to challenge us to kind of think about the course of humanitarianism, and what's right. ISIS is going to change, foreign policy against ISIS is going to change, all the political elements of this story is going to change or be obsolete. I wanted this film to be timeless, so in 20 to 50 years it's still about Jim, his concerns, what he was doing, and the importance of journalism.

How did you find out Jim was missing in Syria originally? The family?
No, the family was told to be quiet by the CIA and the FBI. There was a blackout. [But] I found out from [Jim's brother] Michael Foley, who said, "Hey just want to let you know Jim's been kidnapped in Syria, and we're not out there public with it, but starting to disperse that information now."

We were handcuffed because we didn't know who took him, [and] we were really unable to do what we had done with the Libya situation because there was nothing we could do. We weren't allowed to talk, and didn't want to talk about it, and were trying to keep it quiet. It was scary. You're completely helpless and just waiting on information from a government that doesn't know who has him either.

Jim Foley and Brian Oakes camping in 1992. Photo courtesy of Brian Oakes

The video of Jim's death was a lightning rod, especially for those who knew he had been missing for two years. Was it a shock to you?
Total shock. I was in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and I got a text from my wife who said, "I'm really sorry about what's happened with Jim," and I immediately went on my phone. Of course, it was everywhere. Surreal. Shocking. Horrifying.

How did you handle it?
You just deal with the situation that you can't believe.

Why did you decide to make this film your first solo effort?
About two months after Jim's death, [I saw] headlines [and] inaccuracies [and] "James Foley" being portrayed as things that just made me be uncomfortable. I'm not going to let my friend go out like that.

Like what?
Some of the torture details that were not necessarily accurate, and I saw Michael and the Foley family struggling to control that message [about] what happened. So as a filmmaker and someone who knew Jim, I felt a responsibility to tell a story about Jim that was authentic and through the voices of the people who knew him and loved him—his friends and colleagues—so there would be an accurate representation of what he was doing over there.

How would Jim have reacted to that?
I mean, the image of Jim in the jumpsuit is the second-most recognizable image next to the 9/11 towers in regards to the association with terrorism. Jim would be horrified to know he is known as "that guy."

Jim Foley and Brian Oakes at youth soccer in 1982. Photo courtesy of Brian Oakes

Because that would detract from why he went over there?
Jim was in Syria to get these stories of civilians who were getting bombed by their government [and] killed on a daily basis. That's what was important to him. So I have a responsibility to my friend to show people who are interested in his story what he was doing over there. That [is what was] important for me, and for Jim as a person.

The image of Jim in the orange jumpsuit in the desert [has] become such a recognizable image, and it means a lot of different things both politically and socially. I wanted to re-contextualize that image. If you understand who Jim was and understand and know the person that he was a little more intimately, the causes he was for and how he went about his life that image takes on a completely different meaning. I want to take that image away from [ISIS]. I'm hoping that this film can in some way do that.

"[But] as tragic and horrible as Jim died, his story is very triumphant to me. He exemplifies what a human being could aspire to, or be inspired by."

How worried were/are you about the project being seen as opportunistic, or even exploitative?
That was my biggest fear while making the film, so there was a line that I was constantly aware of. I took each decision as it [came] asking myself, "Is this an honest portrayal of Jimmy, and does it help move his story forward and help show what he was all about?" I wanted the film to feel like it was told from someone who didn't know him.

Sounds difficult.
It was a little hard to do. But in a way, I think that makes the story unique. I think if people who watch the film know that the person who made it knew Jim personally, I think he or she would watch the film in a very different way. It's not just some outsider trying to find the story.

Is there a scene or touch point in the film that you think really captures who Jim was in that sense?
You could never take the humanitarianism out of Jim. He did a story on the Dar al-Shifa Hospital in [Aleppo,] Syria— kind of the main hospital treating victims in these neighborhoods —and they were shuttling people in with drips in cars and in trunks and the back of trucks, just all day long. So Jim decided to raise money to get an ambulance for that hospital. He sent out an email to his colleagues to try and raise money, and he did it! They got this secondhand ambulance that made its way down from Austria to Aleppo. That, to me, is a microcosmic story that really shows the type of person Jim was.

It's those kinds of stories that make Jim's final one all the more tragic.
Sure, [but] as tragic and horrible as Jim died, his story is very triumphant to me. He exemplifies what a human being could aspire to, or be inspired by. Jim's story is very small, but the messages that percolate to the surface can just really make you think about the world we live in. He makes me look at myself in the mirror all the time, and I've been dissecting Jim as a character my whole life but definitely in the last year, and there have been some amazing epiphanies in the film for people that really resonate, and really make you look at yourself.

How did you orchestrate the narrative and focus on the three years or so the film does? With so much to cover in this story, it must have been a nightmare to establish the thread in order to not have audiences get lost in the point. Which was Jim.
My goal was to always just be honest. I didn't have an agenda, and I wanted to tell a story that was honest and about my friend, and I like flaws. I like mistakes when people make them. I think that's what makes people very relatable. And as you know Jim had lots of flaws. We all do. So you can't tell a story that makes someone look perfect or a saint or a hero, because if you do people call bullshit. If you tell an honest story people will respect that. And to me that makes for a much more emotional and powerful film about someone, [saying] "This is my buddy I've known most of my life and this is what I discovered about him and this is the legacy that he left behind and how he affected people." And it's fucking amazing. He just transcends religion and politics. It's really great, and I'm proud of it. And I think he would be too.

Follow Dan on Twitter, and during the New Hampshire primaries when he and the Boston Institute for Non-Profit Journalism (BINJ) are throwing a huge party.

Jim: The James Foley Story premieres on HBO February 6.