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Journalist James Foley's Beheading By ISIS Told In HBO's 'Jim'


There's a moment in the new documentary about journalist James Foley that breaks your heart. It's a scene with Foley talking about the first time he was kidnapped in the Middle East chasing a story.


JAMES FOLEY: You have a close call. That's pure luck that you didn't get killed there. It's not worth seeing your mother, father bawling and worrying about your grandmother dying because you're in prison. It's not worth these things.

KELLY: Chilling words because we know how Foley's story ends. He returned to the front lines, was taken captive in Syria, held for close to two years and then, in 2014, beheaded. The grisly video sparked outrage around the world and put ISIS on the front pages. What has been less well-known is who James Foley, the man, was. Brian Oakes decided to change that. His new film about his childhood buddy is titled simply "Jim." Brian Oakes, thanks for coming in.

BRIAN OAKES: Thanks so much for having me. It's a real pleasure to be here.

KELLY: Likewise for us. Tell me when did you first met the Foleys?

OAKES: I met the Foleys when I was 7 years old. I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire called Wolfeboro on Lake Winnipesaukee. And yeah, Jim and I were first-graders together.

KELLY: And I think that comes across because this struck me as a film that a stranger could not have made. You kept your one moment with one of his brothers, his younger brother, John, talking about how the family felt when they learned that Jim, having already been kidnapped once in Libya, was now taking an assignment in Syria. Let's listen.


JOHN FOLEY: Hey, you just want to punch him in the face, you know, in a loving, brotherly way. You know, but you're like, come on, Jim. Come on.

KELLY: I mean, anybody with a brother knows that impulse to punch them in a loving, brotherly way.

OAKES: (Laughter).

KELLY: But you really captured a family who knows what it is like to go through hell and back.

OAKES: Yeah, I mean, this is a very intimate film. I think it's an interesting clip to play because I think what ended up being the thesis of this film was exactly answering the question of why Jim goes into these conflict zones and why he decided to go back.

KELLY: What do you think it was that drove him?

OAKES: You know, one of the reasons that Jim decided to go back was he wanted to tell the stories of the Syrian civilians and what was happening to them over there. It was really important for him to tell these stories and show the world what was going on.

KELLY: You know, for me, as a journalist watching this film, one of the things that stood out was how deeply invested he was in the people he was meeting and the stories he was telling. You have one part where he talks about how, in Syria, he went and documented children who had been killed at a hospital in Aleppo and was so moved by it that he ended up raising $10,000 to buy an ambulance for this hospital. That's a great and noble thing to do as a person. It's questionable as a journalist to get involved and influence the story you're covering. And he didn't seem to see it that way.

OAKES: Yeah, you know, Jim was - he had a humanitarian side to him. Before he was a journalist, he was a teacher. He taught in the Chicago prison systems at the Kennedy boot camp for inmates that were making the transition back into society. He really felt that the stories of the underdog needed to be told.

KELLY: We mentioned the video of his beheading, which played over and over on TV in the days after his death. Why did you choose not to include it in the film?

OAKES: Well, I mean, that's a pretty easy answer. It's not what the film was about. Jim's execution was ultimately, obviously, the end of his life. But the film has nothing to do with that.

KELLY: One other editorial decision that I wondered about is you did not include anybody from the government, from the Obama administration. And I ask because there are a lot of people in the film who are very critical, saying the government didn't do enough to try to help the family, didn't do enough to try to bring him home. There's one bit that I want to play. This is from Jim's boss at GlobalPost, which is the news organization he was mostly filing for. It's his boss, Philip Balboni, talking.


PHILIP BALBONI: I have a lot of evolving thoughts about this whole process and what the government didn't do that it should've done. I mean, if you just look at the facts, there are 15 European hostages who are alive and with their families and friends and loved ones today.

KELLY: He's referring there to other Westerners who were held hostage along with Jim. And some of their governments paid a ransom, and they are now free and alive. Is it fair to make a movie that levels those kind of charges and not let anybody respond?

OAKES: That's a great question. This is a purposefully very apolitical film. There's a lot of political themes that percolate to the surface of Jim's story. The reason I chose not to dive into these political issues is that these are constantly evolving things that are going on. And six months from now, it's going to be completely different. And if I'm going to go into those, it gets away from Jim. But I think it's important that those conversations are started.

KELLY: And let's hear one more time from James Foley himself. This is him giving a speech when he was back home in New in England, reflecting on the first time that he had been kidnapped and what it was like to come home.


JAMES FOLEY: And outside in my parent's home and, you know, comfortable house in New Hampshire, I sort of had to start processing. I was horrified to learn how much my friends and family had done to help me. I was inspired, and I was horrified. It was a weird feeling of, like, going to your own funeral, you know?

KELLY: And it's a weird feeling to now. When hear those words now. I mean, when you hear him say that, you almost wonder if he knew how all this might end.

OAKES: Yeah, I mean, I think that's a - you know, I think Jim - Jim transcended politics and religion. And I often wonder if - he's the only one who knows exactly why he went back. But - you know, by making this film and interviewing his colleagues, you know, conflict journalists, they're very rare breed. And the ingredients that make up the recipe of them are incredible characteristics of physical courage, moral courage and dedication and endurance. And so, you know, I really wanted to show the importance of conflict journalists and what they do.

KELLY: Well, Brian, thank you so much for taking the time.

OAKES: Thank you so much.


KELLY: That's Brian Oakes talking about his childhood friend, James Foley. His film is called Jim, it just premiered at Sundance film Festival. And airs this Saturday on HBO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noor Wazwaz