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Sundance film explores changing warfare through the eyes of murdered journalist

Published: Sunday, Jan. 31 2016 2:05 p.m. MST

James Foley (center, in white helmet), in Libya

Manu Brabo, Provided by the Sundance Institute

James Foley was the only person Nicolas Henin, a French journalist, ever allowed to call him “bro.”

Henin and Foley, an American freelance journalist murdered in 2014, were ISIS hostages together in Syria for 10 months. In the Sundance Film Festival documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story,” Henin details how he came to think of Foley as his brother.

“I usually dislike these familiarities, like, ‘Hey, bro!’ No — I am not your brother. But from Jim, yes, please do,” Henin says in the film in a thick French accent. “We invented a life in captivity and when you invent a life, you must also invent a family.”

Henin was released from his ISIS captivity in August 2014, the same month Foley was beheaded in an ISIS YouTube video that shocked the world.

“Jim” details Foley’s life and captivity through the eyes of his family, who largely objected to his work, but were powerless to stop him. To his family, Foley’s determination to become a conflict journalist, risking life and limb to capture the stories of rebels in places like Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, was a complete mystery.

“Why the hell did you go back?” Foley’s brother, Michael, asks in the opening of the film. “I keep asking that.”

Despite his brush with captivity and death after spending 44 days in a Libyan prison in 2011, Foley lasted three months at home before heading to Syria, to his family’s amazement.

“I told him, ‘You just met my daughter. She loves you, I love you, just why?’” Foley’s brother and U.S. Air Force Maj. John Foley said. “I just wanted to punch him in the face in a loving, brotherly way.”

At its core, the film is the eulogy Foley’s friends and family weren’t able to give after he was killed. But “Jim” isn’t just about Foley or his death as an example of ISIS’ barbaric methods. It illustrates how much journalism and warfare have changed in the age of the war on terrorism. Both the lack of journalistic resources and the nature of terror groups have made conflict journalism more dangerous than ever, as Foley’s friends attest to repeatedly in the film.

“Everyone in a conflict zone has their own measure for what's safe and what isn’t,” Foley’s colleague, Clare Gillis, says in the film. “Remember, there was no bureau to report to.”

Changing business

Richard Edmonds, a media analyst at the Poynter Institute, said that financial instability in the news business in the past decade or so has greatly altered how journalists cover war.

“It used to be that metro papers — like the Baltimore Sun, Newsday — had some reporters working abroad. Should you have (the) misfortune to have been captured then, it was a good thing to have a large organization behind you,” Edmonds said, noting that most papers no longer have foreign correspondents. “That became a casualty of having to cut some things back.”

To make sure international affairs were still covered when many well-known services like Knight Ridder and United Press International were closing or cutting foreign coverage dramatically in the early 2000s, outlets turned to freelance journalists willing to shoulder the risks alone.

“International coverage dwindled,” Phil Balboni, Foley’s editor at digital news service GlobalPost, says in the film. “We saw a need to fill the void and we needed to work with freelancers (to do that).”

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