Documentarian filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald is no stranger to Oscar buzz. His 2019 film Lifeboat was nominated for Best Short Documentary. Now he is nominated once again for his latest heart-wrenching short film Hunger Ward, this time turning his gaze on the on-going war in Yemen and its impacts on the civilians caught in the conflict and the subsequent famine that has engulfed the country.
“Filmed from inside two of the most active therapeutic feeding centers in Yemen where two million children are on the brink of starvation, Hunger Ward documents two female health care workers fighting to thwart the spread of starvation against the backdrop of a forgotten war. The film provides an unflinching portrait of Dr. Aida Al Sadeeq and Nurse Mekkia Mahdi as they try to save the lives of hunger-stricken children within a population on the brink of famine.”
Read on for my interview with filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald:
Lucas Longacre: So Skye, I knew watching the Hunger Ward that this was going to be a rough one, just from the topic and from what the material is. And yet, I was still unprepared; five minutes in I was tearing up, because it’s just so difficult to watch, the human suffering and everything that happens in front of our eyes. Can you tell me a little bit about how this project came about?
Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah, Hunger Ward is the capstone of a trilogy of films that I began in 2014. It was intended to be an exploration of how global displacement was playing out because of conflict in different parts of the world. So, the first one was on the Syrian Turkish border, a film called 50 Feet From Syria. The second was Lifeboat which we filmed off the coast of Libya, imbedded in search & rescue operation to sort of track these incredible efforts by asylum seekers to cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge. And then, of course, this project in Yemen, where we embedded in two therapeutic feeding centers in both the south and the north of the country, which are bifurcated by the conflict. And the intent was to try to show the incredibly horrific impact that the war was having on civilians, more than actually the warring parties. And so it was sort of a natural continuation of the trilogy, once I discovered our own government’s complicity in the war in Yemen. And the fact that it’s a human caused famine. And that our taxpayer dollars are supporting it, I felt that given that direct connection to our own wallets, that it was something that if we can get it in front of the Western American public, people would start to care – like they should – by the fact that there are children starving in Yemen, that are in part caused by this blockade that we’re funding.
LL: It’s so tragic to watch. I mean, it’s interesting, because I know this story. I’ve read this story in articles, but seeing it and being there with the people is…it’s game changing. I mean, it definitely makes it so much more personal and human. So what was it like, having to be bear witness and to record and be in these people’s lives, and they’re in the depths of despair like that?
Skye Fitzgerald: You know, it’s interesting, Lucas, I actually had a conversation with Nick Kristoff yesterday about this very thing. Because, you know, some of his reporting, in Sadaqa Hospital in the south, actually opened up some doors for me. So he actually gave me some contacts before I went and introduced me to some folks that we developed relationships with before we filmed. And we talked about how people respond differently to print or different to a still photo than they do to motion pictures, to moving images. And it is different; it’s a different experience for me as a filmmaker. The thing I love so much about cinema, is I feel like it’s a confluence of the arts; it brings together not only photography, It brings together music composition, and it brings together painting when you color correct, and it brings together the world of sound. But also it brings together this more mysterious cocktail of human experience in real time. It was a deeply immersive experience. And one where we kind of had to share the experience and share the grief with the doctors and the families who are experiencing it firsthand. So it wasn’t something we could just show up on the doorstep, film and walk away from. It’s something that continues to this day, through continued relationships with the the doctors and nurses as well as the families.
LL: That’s what I love about the medium; it does pull from all the arts. And one of the things that left a huge impression on me with this film was that you let the subjects speak for themselves. You didn’t have a voice over narrator to force the sequences on people. You just let it live and breathe, which I thought was much more impactful. Was that a decision you made before going into film?
Skye Fitzgerald: I think that goes to my belief that that film is a medium of images, first and foremost, even though it is a confluence of arts, I think cinema should be driven visually. And if you look at the three documentaries of this particular trilogy, for example, you’ll see in the first one, there’s a number of sync sound interviews. Not a lot, but there’s a handful. And then you go into Lifeboat and I think there are two moments where we go to John Castle, the captain of this rescue mission, in sync sound for a particular reason at a particular moment. And then in Hunger Ward, as you noted, there was the intent for there to be no sync sound whatsoever, and to find a different way, using the the syntax of cinema to tell the story. And yet, if you recall, there is one sync sound moment. Mekkia, after we distill the bombing campaign down to a single event, and we returned to her on camera, sync sound. And I wasn’t going to do that. And I have to give full credit to my editor who threw it into a cut. And when I first saw he threw it in, I was like, “Dan, there’s no way I’m gonna use a sync sound moment”, because our evolution as a filmmaking team has been the opposite of that. But he threw it in. I looked at the tail of the clip had this incredibly powerful statement to me where [Mekkia] basically says, Abir, the child she’s caring for, may live or die, and they don’t have any control over that. And then she just looks at camera. And it was her stare that really convinced me It needed to be there, because I sort of think of it as the stare of indictment.
LL: I never got the impression that that was an interview, it felt more natural, just her speaking her heart. And I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so effective: is it just feels so real and raw.
Skye Fitzgerald: And that was actually a sit down interview with her that we intended just to use the audio from. But then this is why we also record the visuals. Every once in a while, you stumble upon something that that is worth really examining on whether it ought to be used and and I’m a big fan of listening to the material and deviating from your design as necessary when warranted. And this felt like one of those moments where the power of her looking at you, after such a statement needed to be in the film, because it really is a stare of indictment for the US involvement in the war.
LL: One of the things she says in that moment is this idea of the vicious cycle of war and violence and starvation that it breeds and then it just becomes this circular awfulness that you can’t escape. And then that became the theme I noticed throughout the film, this unstoppable crisis that we just cannot move beyond. Was that something that you recognized while filming, you sensed those themes out? Or is it something you really discovered in the Edit room?
Skye Fitzgerald: I really think think of the whole documentary directing processes having three visions. There’s the preconception of what I think I’m going to do. And sometimes that’s pretty solid, sometimes it’s pretty concrete, like I really have a visual of what this film is going to be. But the only way that it can work and, I think a film that reaches its potential is if you deviate from that as soon as you need to. As soon as you get into the field, I discovered all sorts of things which I never had anticipated we would have we would run into. And so we had to pivot our approach. We need to actually cover this family in this way, whom I never imagined we would even meet. So there’s that second creation, that separate visioning. That is an active dynamic process in the field. So I am constantly making those directorial decisions in the field. And then the third creation of courses is in post [production]. Now, you’ve got your hard drives, and you have a conception in your mind of what you did. But then you have to look really candidly and clear-sightedly with what you actually came back with. And that’s the third creation. I literally spent, in this case, a full month, just reviewing every single second, every single frame of everything that had been shot, and making a 1500 line spreadsheet of that with my notes. And that took me a month to do because I really felt like I needed to know exactly what we had. Because even though it was just two of us filming, I didn’t know every frame that might be shot. And so from that document, I create an outline. And that is the third, the beginning of the third creation, the shape of the film that I then hand to the editor and say, “This is what I think it actually is, not what I first talked to you about months ago, and not what we actually filmed.
LL: And so how did you get access? It sounds like you have a lot of support globally. But I know for documentary: access is everything. So how did this these partnerships come about?
Skye Fitzgerald: Hard work, diligence, some luck, all of the above? The only way that a film like Hunger Ward can be made, is by working really hard beforehand, long before you pick up a camera to know exactly what kind of access you’re trying to get. And that was one of the biggest challenges for this project, frankly, is it’s exactly why you don’t see films coming out of Yemen. There’s a colleague of mine who did a really wonderful film that was nominated for an Oscar in 2014, called Kerama has no walls. And, you know, in my mind, it’s the last real film to come out of Yemen. There’s been reports and newsreel and that kind of media, but there hasn’t been another film since then, because of the conflict. And so that challenge is a real barrier that we had to overcome. And we used every trick in the book, to get access from a diplomatic level, down to just talking to every single journalist that I had a connection to, who had successfully worked in the country, and just had conversations with them. How do we do it? Who do we go to? And that’s where a lot of the key action items we took to gain access came from, frankly.
LL: And so what is next for this film? I mean, I applaud the the message at the end, which is an action item of what we can do. But so how do we get this film out in front of everybody else?
Skye Fitzgerald: Well, it did launch on Paramount Plus. And then it’s streaming on Pluto TV as well. So in terms of just having it out there on a large platform from an accessibility standpoint, it’s there now and we’re really gratified by that. But, as you know, we’re using the film in a very different ways. I believe in the power of film, just to transport us right and to bring us to another place for pure enjoyment sometimes, or to transport us to a place where we see something in a different way. And, I also believe as a documentarian, that cinema can be, and ought to be considered a force for good sometimes. And that’s how we think of Hunger Ward, we’re trying to use it as a vehicle for positive societal change through altering the US government’s stance on Yemen and the Saudi blockade currently over the country. So we joined a group of celebrities and other NGO entities and signed a letter that went directly to Biden’s office yesterday. It’s also signed by a lot of different lawmakers. So we’re applying pressure to the administration to stop supporting the Saudi Coalition’s blockade of the country, which is leading to the famine. And we’re also directly in conversation with senators and representatives to sort of apply their own kind of pressure. And we’ve also built out a mechanism where people can donate directly to the clinic in the hospital showcased in the film. So there’s multiple ways that people can engage. And we’ve been using the film to initiate that.