10/22/2014 08:14 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

There's No CSI: Syria on TV -- But There Is a Film, and It's for Real


CSI: Syria -- that's a show you'll never see on television.

You can, however, see the movie.

It starts in 2013, soon after Syrian jets drop cluster bombs that kill 200 civilians. Journalists are smart enough to understand and respect the invisible "Keep Out" signs at what passes for the border, but here are Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang boldly stepping over barbed wire.

"We're in Syria!" Ole says. "We're safe!"

You have to admire the humor.

Gallows humor. Like this: An occasional member of the camera crew was James Foley, a year away from becoming the first American to be beheaded by ISIS.

Before I saw the film, I knew that Foley had worked on it, and I wondered what footage was his. But I didn't wonder for long, because I was so totally overwhelmed by the courage of the four members of the E-Team and the filmmakers who followed them over the wire. And then, because courage is in their DNA, the issue of courage drifted away and I just... watched.

Fred Abrahams, Peter Bouckeart, Anna Neistat and her husband Ole Solvang are the E-Team -- the Emergency Team -- of Human Rights Watch. They go places journalists avoid. And they go as quickly as they can; there is no atrocity more compelling than fresh corpses. And because a camera is now a tape recorder and a video, they bring back proof that's far more powerful than a thousand words. They fill a dossier. They make the case -- not just for grateful journalists, but for war crimes tribunals. (To stream the film on Netflix or learn where it is showing in theaters, go to the film's web site.)

Veteran documentary directors Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman had 350 hours of original footage and 100 hours of archival video to work with. They edited ruthlessly to produce an 89-minute movie. It's mostly interviews with witnesses, but it has the feel of an action movie.

A man dumps 27 pieces of steel out of a baggie. "From a cluster bomb," he says. "Those came out of my body."

Another scene takes place in a small apartment during a bombing. "What have we done?" a woman cries. "What is our crime? What did we do to deserve this?"

Later, the E-Team tours a building where civilians were tortured and killed. "They kill them, and then they burn the bodies," their interpreter says. "It's a hobby for them."

What does a cemetery look like in Syria? The headstones are concrete blocks.

Do you want to see this documentary? Of course not. But if you look at almost any screen you use every day -- the Internet, TV, film -- you'll mostly see fake drama and people spouting bullshit they cannot possibly believe. Not here. The E-Team is realer than real. And if it costs you something to see and feel reality ... well, that's the deal.


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