‘The Hostage Takers’ screens as part of the 2023 Ji.hlava IDFF Testimonies programme.
Revolving around the story of Daniel Rye, a young Danish photojournalist captured by ISIS in Syria in 2013, The Hostage Takers also features remarkable interviews with two of the three so-called ‘Beatles’ terrorists involved in the torture, beatings, and executions of British and American hostages.
A Close friend
Rye’s story – about the efforts his working-class family go to raise a ransom of €2 million after the Danish government refuses to negotiate with ISIS – had already been told in a book written by Puk Damsgaard Andersen (and later made into a feature film) when she and Søren Klovbork collaborated to make The Hostage Takers. They were in Syria when they met Sean Langan, a British journalist and documentary filmmaker who had been held prisoner by the Taliban in Afghanistan for three months in 2008. Although contrived, the meeting between Andersen and Langan in a Syrian hotel – apparently by chance when the journalist realises the author of the book about Rye he is reading had just walked into the lobby – fits smoothly into a narrative that seeks to widen out Rye’s personal story by using Langan’s riveting interviews with Alexander Kotey, a convert to Islam from West London, and El Shafee Elsheikh. Both men had worked closely with Mohammed Emwazi – known as ‘Jihadi John’ – who was identified as the terrorist who beheaded American photographer James Foley in Syria in August 2014. A video of the execution was released, prompting global revulsion against ISIS. Emwazi later died in an American drone strike.
What makes The Hostage Takers different from other personal stories of the fate of hostages at the hands of ISIS is that Langan was a close friend of Foley, and although he does his best to maintain professional detachment in the interviews with the British terrorists, he eventually breaks down when he accuses Kotey of having been the videographer who recorded the brutal murder of his friend. The interview ends up in a mutual slanging match as Kotey’s well-cultivated mask of quasi-innocence slips after he admits he cannot remember a single instance when he showed the slightest compassion or care for the hostages.
«You call yourself a fucking Muslim?»
Langan’s interviews – which were used as evidence by the prosecution in the trial of Kotey and Elsheikh, both of whom were sentenced to multiple life terms by a US court in 2022 – are compulsive viewing. He has Elsheikh in tears when he offers to convey a message to the man’s mother, and he has Kotey performing linguistic somersaults to evade responsibility for his part in the brutal beatings and executions of ISIS prisoners.
«You call yourself a fucking Muslim?» Langan says to Kotey. «I spent 20 years with Muslims.»
He continues: «You were at those executions. You filmed Foley’s throat being cut. That’s why I’m having a problem with you, mate.»
Kotey struggles to unpin his lapel mic as the cool veneer finally cracks, and he snaps: «Fuck off, you mug.»
«Fuck off, you mug?» Langan responds incredulously before breaking down in tears once Kotey has stormed out.
Seeing these formerly feared terrorists as pathetic and abject mortals helps demystify the aura of brutal invincibility that ISIS did so much to create around itself. Knowing that both men will spend the rest of their lives behind bars may be of precious little help to the families of those 11 hostages who were killed under their ‘care,’ but the fact that they can be provoked so easily into revealing the hideous self-pity they harbour within helps heal the wounds a little.
Seamlessly weaved through the interviews, Rye’s story is told through interviews with Andersen, alongside the story of the pipe-smoking hostage negotiator they hired, Jens Serup, and that of his parents, Susanne and Kjeld. (When Serup relates his part in handing over the ransom in the barren no man’s land between Turkey and Syria, he says he lit up his pipe, believing that «no one fucks with a man with a pipe»).
Langan, who remarks that his Taliban jailers «played it by the book» and never beat any of their hostages – even showing some compassion, such as the night they allowed the prisoners out to sit beneath the stars on a rocky Afghan hillside – is also a character in this fascinating film.
There is little footage shot in Syria, although that which is used is effective: a few images of Rye’s photographs and mobile phone footage he shot when he first arrived; harrowing footage taken from ISIS propaganda videos, including images of Rye and other hostages being forced to witness the execution of a Syrian man.
Although much of The Hostage Takers revolves around static interviews, the film is among the most compelling of what is already becoming a sub-genre of documentaries about ISIS and the war in Syria and Iraq – the hostage doc.