Written by Joseph Montebello • Photographs Courtesy of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation
On a perfect summer Saturday in June I am standing in front of Bantam Cinema shaking hands with Diane Foley. She is an attractive, petite, dark-haired woman in a black and white printed sleeveless dress. Her smile is welcoming and sincere and there is a vibrancy about her that is at once engaging and surprising, given what she has been through. We are about to enter the theater to watch the HBO documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story.” It is the story of her son who was executed after being captured by ISIS in August 2014. There is not a trace of anger or grief in her demeanor and one can only imagine the strength and courage this woman must possess.
Much has been written and theorized and criticized since the gruesome photo of Foley’s death was circulated. That photo became the second-most iconic image of this century — the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11 being number one. And while there are many who will not recognize Foley’s name, the image is sure to conjure horror and despair.
The film was screened under the auspices of HBO and Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. Nevins, who has produced over one thousand documentaries and is one of the most influential people in the business, has a home in Litchfield and is co-owner of Bantam Cinema. During her stellar career she has won every kind of award and produced some of the most important documentaries of our time.
“We all heard about the film through Peter Kunhardt, who was the executive producer,” Nevins explained. “The director Brain Oakes is an animator in the documentary film business and we have done many things with him. While we were not creatively engaged in the film, we recognized its importance and knew that it was a film we should champion.”
“We contacted Diane Foley and invited her to come to our theater for the screening and asked if she would speak after the film and answer questions.”
And she did — with the utmost poise and elegance. Jim was the oldest of her five children and there was a special bond between them, which is very evident when she speaks about him. Both she and Oakes took to the stage after the movie and responded to the audience’s questions and comments. It was hard to maintain a dry eye.
Before he became a journalist, Foley was an instructor for Teach For America. In 2009, he became an embedded journalist with USAID-funded development projects in Iraq, and in 2011 he wrote for the military newspapers in Afghanistan and in Libya. During that time he was captured by Gaddafi loyalist forces, held for 44 days and then released.
His passion for helping people and exposing injustices led him to return to the war zone — this time in Syria where he was kidnapped again in November 2012, imprisoned with five other journalists, and subsequently executed in August 2014.
He was passionate about his work as a war correspondent, even though he had no protection. Diane Foley weighed in with her view on the issue of safety.
“Because of the problems in the news industry, there has been some abuse of freelance journalists. Particularly in conflict zones. The news organizations say, ‘Sure, if you get a good picture or image we’ll take it,’ but they won’t back any of the needed protection, housing, or anything so that the journalists can be safe while they’re doing these stories. The government needs to know that this is a concern of the American people.”
Brian Oakes had a personal mission to carry out with this film — he and Foley grew up in the same small New Hampshire town and had been friends since they were seven-years-old.
“Two or three months after Jim was killed, I decided to take on the film. My original reason for doing it was to reclaim Jim from the image in the orange jumpsuit that had been splashed across television screens all over the world. By telling Jim’s story, and what he was trying to do as a journalist, I could also show what a great human being he was. When you lose someone you get very protective of their legacy and you want to do everything to honor them. While many of his stories were not mainstream, they needed to be told and he took such great risks to do so.”
It took Oakes about 14 months to complete the film. There are many touching scenes with his family, revealing Foley’s sense of humor and the love and camaraderie he shared with his siblings and his parents. The middle of the film concentrates on clips of Foley in combat zones and working to educate the world on the horrors of war. The third, and perhaps most revealing and sensitive part, consists of interviews with his fellow hostages.
“That was the most challenging part of the process,” said Oakes. “What went on in the prison was a big mystery and to be able to dive into that world and uncover what Jim had really been going through for those two years answered so many questions.”
Yet even more questions remain unanswered. Why was Foley the only prisoner to be executed? What went wrong with the negotiations? Could his death somehow have been avoided?
“When Jim was taken captive, there was no organized entity in our government whose job it was to find Jim and bring him home,” said Diane Foley. “We were assigned to an agent who gathered information, but no one helped us strategize to get him out. They were kind and would listen, but nothing happened. They kept telling us Jim was their highest priority but it wasn’t true in terms of action or mission or organization.”
Thanks to the Foleys’ perseverance, last June a Hostage Fusion Cell was developed by a presidential directive, whose only mission is to strategize on how to bring Americans home.
Oakes is proud of his film and has every reason to be. It was entered in this year’s Sundance Film Festival and won the 2016 Audience Award. It has been widely reviewed and is now available on HBO. Soon it will have international distribution and hopefully bring even more attention to the plight of journalists like Foley. There is talk that the film may even qualify for an Academy Award nomination.
“This film for me was my way of carrying on the work Jim was doing in Syria and letting people who are interested in his story know who he was. I wanted to protect Jim’s legacy. I think — I hope — that he would be proud of it,” said Oakes.
His family, after suffering the most deplorable demise of their beloved brother and son are also trying to honor him and preserve all that he stood for. They have created the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation to honor his life’s work.
“He was a conflict journalist, educator and humanitarian,” said Diane Foley. “Jim sought to be a voice for the voiceless, whether telling the stories from the frontlines of conflict or working with disadvantaged children.”
The foundation has three campaigns: first, to advocate for the release of American hostages; the second is promote increased safety and equity for freelance journalists. To that end, A Culture of Safety Alliance has been created to bring together media companies, journalists and photographers to address the problems related to being a freelancer. The third part of the foundation centers around Foley as an educator and a person who inspired others. It will focus on helping underprivileged youth through education.
Although she was hesitant at the original suggestion that a movie of Jim’s life should be made, Diane Foley is glad that it was produced.
“At first I really wasn’t interested,” she explained. “It was too soon after Jim’s death and I wasn’t ready for it. Our son Michael was convinced that we should do it and that Brian was the right person because he knew Jim and loved him as we did. We are all very happy to have the film so that people can know what Jim was really like.”
Sheila Nevins has nothing but praise and admiration for both the film and Diane Foley. “She is truly a walking miracle. To have survived her son’s horrific execution and to have the courage and positive attitude that she has is amazing. She is a very religious person and I think that belief in God is the reason she has been able to move forward.”
In her own way Diane Foley is exhibiting the same courage and compassion that her son did, which in itself is a great legacy.