The filmmaker Ross Kauffman, an Academy Award-winner for the documentary Born Into Brothels, pauses on a frame of his latest film, E-Team, which tracks human-rights workers operating in the war zones of Libya and Syria and also in their homes in Berlin, Brooklyn, Geneva, Moscow, and Paris. The scene, shot in Aleppo, Syria, shows a man holding up a crusty-looking cylindrical object. What is it? “It’s an unexploded bomb,” says Kauffman, matter of factly.

Kauffman, who teaches at the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking, part of the Mason Gross School of the Arts, was the one filming the scene, and he wasn’t doing it with a Hollywood-style crew to back him up. He was on his own in rebel-held territory, accompanied only by Ole Solvang, a Norwegian member of Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Team (or E-Team), which investigates abuses and gathers evidence about them. A half mile away, an air strike was leveling a block of buildings. “People just pick them up at random,” Kauffman says of the bomb. “They don’t even think these things can go off. It’s a little scary—a weird mix of danger and humor. Which,” he adds, “is also what I like.”

The film, codirected by Kauffman and Katy Chevigny, garnered Kauffman (and co-cinematographer Rachel Beth Anderson) the U.S. documentary cinematography award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. A review in Variety called the film “a dynamic and immersive piece of you-are-there vérité,” with the filmmakers being “plenty intrepid themselves by daring to follow the E-Team’s every move even as bombs fly.”

E-Team was years in the making. Kauffman and Chevigny first discussed the project in 2007. They met four members of the Emergencies Team in Brooklyn for dinner and knew they had the characters for a film. “It became pretty clear that they were somewhat the stuff of fiction,” says Kauffman. “Sometimes it’s harder to write these characters than to come across them in real life.”

Kauffman and Anderson followed the E-Team into war zones in Libya and Syria, as did another cinematographer, James Foley, who later disappeared in Syria in 2012 while on a separate assignment. “We had to keep a small footprint,” says Kauffman. “If you’re following human-rights workers documenting atrocities, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. I didn’t have a tripod. I didn’t have any lights. It was a camera and sound equipment.”

Yet in some ways, as they got to know their subjects—in this case, following them not only into war zones, but also their homes in far-flung locations around the globe—they became far more than characters in a film. “It’s more than just subject and director,” says Kauffman. “It almost becomes a collaboration.” And by being with them, and seeing them in moments beyond conflict—when they’re having dinner or visiting their parents—the film conveys the fabric of their lives. “I like to find the hope within the sadness or difficulty,” says Kauffman. “And you have to go to some dark places to find that.”