As Diane Foley watched the new movie “Viper Club,” about an American freelance journalist taken hostage by terrorists in Syria and his mother’s struggles to free him, her suspicions were confirmed — and her anger stoked.
“This sounds like my son’s story,” she told herself. “This sounds like my story.”
The parallels between Foley and Helen Sterling, played by Susan Sarandon, are striking. So much so that Foley was infuriated to learn of the film’s existence only after it had been finished.
“It’s so blatantly my story,” Foley said in an interview after leaving a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday. She said the filmmakers had lifted moments, conversations and months-long struggles from her life and misrepresented the work of journalists like her son, James, without consulting her or any other families whose loved ones were held hostage and killed.
And it raised a question, more philosophical than legal: Can a story ever be so traumatic and personal that it belongs to its subject?
Sarandon plays a nurse (like Foley) who’s counseled by well-meaning but ineffective government officials not to speak publicly about her son’s abduction and the threat to his life. She’s frustrated to find that FBI agents investigating his kidnapping aren’t talking to State Department officials who are supposedly in charge of diplomatic efforts to free him. Ultimately, Helen makes contact with powerful people outside the government who tap their own influential networks to try to get her son out of Syria.
This happened in real life, to Foley and to the families of other journalists and aid workers who were kidnapped by the Islamic State and in some cases met the same fate as James, who was beheaded in a video blasted across YouTube in 2014.
In a surreal collision of life and art, YouTube is distributing “Viper Club,” first theatrically in October, in time for awards season, and later online through its paid premium service. The platform came under withering criticism for not acting fast enough to remove gruesome beheading videos when Foley and other Islamic State hostages were killed.
Maryam Keshavarz, the film’s co-writer and director, acknowledged that the story is inspired by the experiences of Foley and others. She says that by her count, she has read hundreds of articles about the hostages and watched several documentaries. She even initially named the film “Vulture Club,” after a real group of journalists who report from war zones and other hot spots.
But, Keshavarz insists, hers is a work of fiction.
“I was moved by real-life events,” she said. But “Viper Club” “isn’t one person’s story.” The ordeals of Foley, journalist Steven J. Sotloff, aid worker Kayla Mueller and many others taken prisoner over the years created a canvas on which Keshavarz said she told a new story about the struggles facing journalists who work in the world’s most dangerous places.
Keshavarz met last month in New York with Foley, after the hostage’s mother contacted the filmmaker to express her concerns.
“The director represented this as a totally fictional story,” Foley said, but “she really knew our story rather intimately.”
Keshavarz was under no legal obligation to consult Foley or other victims’ families, nor did she have to pay them for their story. “Life rights,” which filmmakers sometimes obtain when they’re making a story based on a real person, entitle the artist to exclusive access to the subject for interviews and consultation, said Russell Smith, an entertainment and media lawyer with the firm SmithDehn LLP.
“You’re not required to get a life-rights deal,” said Smith, who consulted with Foley about the film but is not representing her or her charitable foundation, established in her son’s memory.
“Imagine if you had to get Donald Trump’s permission to do the Donald Trump story,” Smith said. “That would be absurd and contrary to the First Amendment.”
But did Keshavarz have an ethical obligation to speak to Foley?
“We’re dealing with people’s lives here,” Smith said. “People who were slaughtered on YouTube. Just out of respect for another human being, I’d have thought you’d want to get it right with the family. Which doesn’t mean you have to do what the family says.”
When Foley eventually met with Keshavarz, there was no time to change the film. But she remained concerned that the filmmaker would depict her son and his colleagues as “reckless adrenaline junkies” and not cautious, conscientious professionals who were keenly aware of the risks they had taken.
The members of the Viper Club end up introducing Helen to a network of wealthy benefactors who can raise ransom money or potentially mount a rescue mission. The real Vulture Club, several members said, is a social media group where journalists exchange leads on fixers, safe hotels and other tips on reporting in dangerous places. Foley and some members of the group said that portraying it as a clandestine organization that organizes ransom payments distorts reporters’ work and could put them at risk.
“This film was made without consultation with anyone whose real-life experiences it lifts from, nor with any consideration for the safety or security of freelance reporters like the one it depicts,” said Emma Beals, an independent journalist and advisory board member of Hostage US, a nonprofit that supports families of Americans taken captive overseas.
Employees from YouTube’s parent company, Google, also met with Foley and discussed the film. Initially, the company offered to host her as a guest at the premiere and to donate an online advertisement for her foundation, Foley said. She declined the invitation because she didn’t want to appear to be endorsing the film.
Later, Google said it would give $10,000 to the foundation and then upped the amount to $30,000, she said. YouTube said in a statement the company is “eager to offer support to this Foundation, because we recognize the value of good journalism and a free press.”
“We have the deepest sympathy for Diane Foley and everyone whose loved ones have ever been hurt or lost to an act of terrorism,” the company also said, adding that the film was a “fictional account that was inspired by many different stories and accounts.”
Foley said she had tried to keep an open mind as she went into the screening on Tuesday. (She attended on her own, not as a guest of the producers.) Ultimately, she said, the film “diminishes the legacy of courageous young American journalists,” which Keshavarz insisted she never wished to do.
Asked why she didn’t avail herself of the chance to talk to Foley and other families, if only for research purposes, Keshavarz said she didn’t want the story to have to be true only to one person’s experience.
“[Foley] will always see it as her story,” Keshavarz said. “But it is a fictional character going through events that happened in real life.”