Diane Foley says she was never consulted about a new movie which seems to draw heavily from her life and the death of her son.
“Viper Club” stars Susan Sarandon as “Helen”, a nurse. The character’s son “Andy” is a freelance journalist in Syria who is abducted by the Islamic State. Foley, too, is a nurse. Her son James was abducted in 2012 by the Islamic State and a graphic video of his killing was broadcast publicly in 2014.
“Nobody has ever reached out to me,” Foley said per The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s very disappointing when people steal tragedies and try to make a profit out of them, very upsetting.”
What’s more, “[Susan Sarandon] even physically resembles me. What was appalling is that it was my story, almost to the tiniest detail.” There is more than just the premise of the movie that seems familiar to Foley, who travelled from New Hampshire to Toronto to see a screening at TIFF 2018.
Both Foley and Sarandon’s character were shuffled back and forth between multiple government agencies, told not to talk about their sons’ abductions, and threatened with jail time if they tried to pay a ransom. Furthermore, “Helen” connects with a secret network of international journalists in the movie; that same network contacted Foley in real life.
Foley said the differences between her and “Helen” are generally unimportant to the events, namely a difference in religious practice and nursing specialty.
Director Maryam Keshavarz argued inspiration was taken from multiple stories; the families of American journalists Daniel Pearl and Steven Sotloff were also examined.
“We did a lot of research, read over 100 articles, saw a dozen documentaries, and [tried to] find a way to be very truthful to what these families went through,” Keshavarz said, “but have the freedom to weave in different themes that I was trying to examine.”
Keshavarz did admit, “I would love to have a conversation, and in hindsight, I should have let them know what I was doing and that I’m out there trying to tell stories about issues that matter to all of us. And I hope it’s not too late for that.”
The movie’s producer Neal Dodson also chimed in: “Though the film is not about Diane or James Foley, he is a hero and Diane’s foundation does amazing work, which the film aims to shine a light on.”
The film will be released through YouTube’s Premium subscription service. Foley reached out to YouTube’s parent company Google, who allegedly offered a $30,000 donation to the foundation she runs in her son’s memory, the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. Foley ultimately turned down the offer.
“I would like Google, YouTube, the director, to make a generous donation to the training and the safety of freelance journalists, to the Foley Foundation that’s been named in Jim’s memory,” she said. “That would be the right thing to do, to show that they care. If they’re going to use our story, without asking permission of anyone, the least they can do is make amends that way.”
YouTube had this to say in response: “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 film ‘Viper Club’ is a fictional account that was inspired by different stories and accounts and highlights the important and brave work that journalists undertake in perilous regions around the world.”
“According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, over 600 reporters were killed in the last decade alone,” they continued. “These types of films are an important part of our national dialogue and add to the vital conversation about the role of journalism and the critical work that war reporters do.”
By a stroke of luck, Foley ran into Sarandon at the airport and pressed her on the matter. “She knew nothing about it, nothing,” Foley said of Sarandon. “She was surprised. She was clueless. She told me she’s going to watch the documentary and try to talk to Google.”
In a separate controversy, journalists lashed out at Sarandon for calling them “traitors.” The actress apologized, explaining her “non-interventionist” ideals give her “a deep mistrust of American Corporate News Media.” She said she “never thought of independent journalists” as part of that group and asked to be educated.