E-Team documents several members of the Human Rights Watch, an international organization that investigates human-rights abuses around the world, as something akin to international terrorism superheroes, no better epitomized than the role-call format of the opening credits, with each of the four subjects introduced in successive headshots. Directors Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman attempt to complicate this initial proffering, however, by making consistent forays into the members’ personal lives. Anna testifies about atrocities committed by the Syrian regime in one scene, while at home with her parents, talking about quitting smoking in the next. Ole, engaged to Anna, remains resilient with sounds of cluster bombs outside of a Syrian apartment, but serenades his bride-to-be with a piano tune inside their Paris apartment. Fred, the jokester, who was in part helpful in getting Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević extradited for war crimes in 2001, sits in his Berlin apartment recounting the events, but lapses into jokes and asides to enliven the proceedings. And Peter, the stoic one, meticulously works to sort through potential human-rights violations by the Gaddafi regime, stopping briefly to criticize Fred, who takes too long ordering an airport breakfast.
These comprehensive juxtapositions between on-the-scene and off-the-cuff moments reveal an inherent contradiction between filmmaker and subject; while the team members claim they work from evidence first, then reach conclusions, Chevigny and Kauffman have set out to make a hagiographic observational documentary that is more interested in putting a human face on an organization than it is operating with a more rigorous, journalistic precision. Although outwardly operating as a procedural, documenting the team’s recent forays into Syria, Libya, and Turkey, the representational mode is largely sentimental and littered with plastic ironies, such as when Anna, dressed in an abaya for disguise, is driven by a wall reading “freedom,” while T. Griffin’s somber music provides the scene’s outro.
Even more inexcusable is a scene in which Anna’s son watches a scene from Mr. and Mrs. Smith on his laptop, with Angelina Jolie wielding a machine gun while bombs detonate around her. In just the previous scene, Anna speculated aloud about her son’s fears regarding her life. It’s a manipulative, disingenuous gesture that displays a lack of self-reflexivity from Chevigny and Kauffman, who clearly view their documentation as separate and more noble than the cacophony of spectacles and violence propagated by Hollywood filmmakers. It’s an especially glaring issue, since the filmmakers have no issue slow-zooming on a mourning woman who claims her slain children were unarmed or using angry citizens as mostly backdrops to the investigations being conducted. There’s edifying information in E-Team, but it’s tainted by forced dramatic tactics.