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HBO's 'Jim' tells the backstory of murdered journalist James Foley

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Brian Oakes makes his directorial debut with "Jim: The James Foley Story," a documentary that explores the intersection of terrorism and conflict journalism through the life of his childhood friend.

Brian Oakes makes his directorial debut with "Jim: The James Foley Story," a documentary that explores the intersection of terrorism and conflict journalism through the life of James Foley. The film received the Audience Award for a U.S. Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, and it will premiere on HBO this month.

The Islamic State group released a video in August, 2014 of Foley's beheading. In the video, Foley is shown kneeling in the desert with his head shaved and wearing an orange jumpsuit. His captor stands over him clad all in black with his face covered. The captor's strong British accent suggested that he was recruited from the U.K. ​

Foley had been a war correspondent stationed in Syria to cover the country's civil war when he was captured in November, 2012. Before his murder, he was forced to read a statement blaming U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East for his death.

The graphic video's release ramped up Western attention to the crisis in the Middle East and the development of the militant Islamic group, especially its ability to recruit internationally. 

In making his documentary, Brian Oakes wanted to repurpose the images of his childhood schoolmate's last moments. To Oakes and the journalists that Foley worked with, James was "Jim" — a friend who was passionate about his work. The film reveals who Foley was before that fateful day, and tracks how he ended up there. 

Jim Foley and Brian Oakes (1992)
Jim Foley and Brian Oakes (1992)

The Frame's John Horn met with director Brian Oakes at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about the film and how Oakes remembered Foley.


I've known Jim since we were seven years old. We were first-graders together in a little rural town called Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. He really loved people. He loved their stories, telling their stories, and specifically people [who were] kind of the underdogs. And I think when he was doing his embed with the U.S. troops, he saw a lot what was [happening] on the other side. 

The other side being the victims of war, the people who are suffering at the hands of the war or an oppressive government?

Absolutely... The recipe of a war correspondent is very specific. I think it's a very rare breed. And Jim had a lot of those characteristics. You need to have physical courage. You need to have moral courage. And you need to be able to be calm under very stressful situations. And in a way, they have a lot of soldier-like qualities.

Jim in the Karm Jebel neighborhood of Aleppo, that was being heavily fought over. November 5, 2012.
Nicole Tung (Photo Courtesy HBO)
Jim in the Karm Jebel neighborhood of Aleppo, that was being heavily fought over. November 5, 2012.

Early on in the film, one of Jim's brothers asks the question, "Why?" It's a question that kind of echoes throughout the film. Why was he in Syria? Why was he chosen to be assassinated by ISIS? As you're making the movie, was [answering those questions] part of the motivation on your part, or were you trying to figure out more about who Jim was beyond what you knew? 

There are a lot of layers to that answer. But I would say the thesis of the film is, Why was Jim over there? And not only that, but why did he go back?

And we should point out, he went back to the Middle East after he had already been kidnapped in Libya. And he went back to Syria, which was even a more dangerous place.

Correct. And I think that it's a question for Jim specifically, but it's also a question [of], Why do conflict journalists do what they do? What is the draw? Conflict journalism has always existed. The job has changed. But it's always existed. So there is an extreme importance for what these conflict journalists are doing on the front lines, to capture what is going on and to give us the information.

There's a kind of a job for them that they feel they're doing. There's also another layer to this and it's about providing context of what these guys are seeing. And it has that kind of soldier-esque quality. These guys are going in and they're seeing children being bombed... And when you see these things, this really affects you and it becomes a reality to them. And when you leave that reality, when you leave those war zones and you come back to the world that we live in, it becomes very difficult for them to process.

We talk about it as almost this siren song. It's like a drawback — I need to kind of go back there. And it's an important topic. Again, it's the thesis because when Jim was killed, there was a lot of that same question. Why was he there? He knew it was dangerous. And personally, I had that question myself, too. And doing this film was a great way for me to answer that. 

Was the question answered for you, why he did it? Why he wanted to be there?


And was part of your motivation in making the film to answer that question, and was it also partly to figure out how to process the loss of your good friend? Were those two things joined in some ways, in the making of the film?

I've never really thought about it being a process of dealing with it. I don't know if I'll ever have closure, if that's what you're asking. Closure is a tough word. Meeting up with those former hostages and understanding what he went through was a total discovery for me. In that way I was able to process it and that was really amazing. 

But I would say, another reason for doing this film is [that] Jim was in Syria three years ago telling these stories of these civilians. And right now we're seeing the largest refugee crisis in the world since World War II. And the stories that he was telling three years ago are so relevant right now. I wanted the film to help Jim bring those stories back to the surface and carry on the amazing work that he was doing. 

Jim Foley (Photo Courtesy HBO)
Simon Klingert (Photo Courtesy HBO)
Jim Foley (Photo Courtesy HBO)

Towards the end of the film there's a clip where one of Jim's brothers reads a letter that Jim wanted to send out from captivity. What's the importance of the letter in terms of what Jim was thinking about and what his concerns were in the last days of his life? 

...It's a letter to his family. And it's personal. And I think with the video, they intended to show that these are Jim's last words — scripted words that he was made to say.

In which he denounces the country, essentially.

Yeah. But those weren't his last words. His last words were his letter to his family. 

You say at the start of the film that there are going to be images of conflict in the film, but you will not show Jim's execution. I guess as a film watcher, you kind of know that you're not going to see this horrible thing. But I suspect that's not entirely what you were trying to do, to shield the audience. There's a bigger idea behind not showing that. 

Yeah. I think the image of Jim, whether it's the photograph of Jim kneeling in the desert in his orange jump suit that we all are familiar with — and then there's the actual video. And at the very beginning of the process of filmmaking I was very hesitant to use any of that. Because my thought was, Why would I want to show that? This is a film about Jim. And as I got through the filmmaking process, I soon started to realize that people need to know who you're talking about. And people know James Foley as this figure. And so you need to show your viewer who this film is about as you know him. 

But at the same time, there's a huge sensitivity because another layer of why I made this film is I wanted to re-contextualize that image. It's the reason I call the film "Jim." The world knows him as James Foley. I always knew him as Jim. And if I'm able to show you who this man was, the amazing things he was doing and what a normal person he was, and you understand where he's coming from and what he's doing — you look at that image again and it takes on a completely different meaning. Because now you know who's behind that figure sitting in the desert. There's good and evil in that photo. And to me I feel like we're taking it away from its intended use, and now we're owning it. 

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