STORY IN FOCUS – INTERVIEW WITH SKYE FITZGERALD, DIRECTOR OF OSCAR-NOMINATED ‘HUNGER WARD’
Skye Fitzgerald founded Spin Film to bear witness to unfolding crises with the intent to deepen empathy and understanding. He recently completed a trilogy of films on the global refugee crisis: 50 FEET FROM SYRIA, voted onto the Oscar® shortlist; LIFEBOAT nominated for an Academy Award® and national Emmy® award; and, HUNGER WARD, also nominated for an Academy Award®.
As a Fulbright Research Scholar Fitzgerald has worked with organizations as varied as the Sundance Institute, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Mountainfilm. As a Director of Photography, Fitzgerald lenses work for clients such as Dateline, VICE, Mercy Corps, CNN and Discovery Channel. Fitzgerald is an honorary member of SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society) for his work with Syrian refugees and a Distinguished Alumnus at his alma mater EOU for documentary work. Fitzgerald is also a member of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
For a full bio see https://www.spinfilm.org/about
Q1: Can you please explain what the Oscar nominated Hunger Ward is about?
HUNGER WARD documents the effects of the war in Yemen on children and health care workers in both the North and South of the country.
The project seeks to go beyond the mind-numbing statistics accompanying the conflict and instead places the viewer in two therapeutic feeding centers as doctors and nurses treat children who have been starved during the course of the conflict.
Q2: What led you to do this documentary and why did you choose to focus on Yemen?
Initially, I was drawn by the story of the flow of asylum seekers and economic migrants that had shifted from the central Mediterranean to a crossing of the Red Sea to Yemen. Upon learning of the blockade over Yemen by the Saudi coalition and the US government’s complicity in supporting it, I became very angry. Ultimately, I decided to leverage that anger at my own government’s involvement in multiple war crimes in Yemen into a film that could raise awareness here in the West surrounding the man-made crisis.
Q3: What challenges did you face in filming and highlighting those starving in Yemen?
Every day was a series of questions – each which had to be answered. How do you keep your crew safe in a conflict zone? How do you protect your collaborators from bad actors who do not want the story of a human-caused famine told? How do you travel safely through 25 checkpoints in a day? How do you film a child die on camera and not weep? How do you talk with a family about whether or not they want the death of their child to live on in a film after their child’s body is in the ground? How do you avoid being kidnapped by Al Quadi in the Arabian peninsula – or just as bad perhaps – avoid being hit by an American missile fired by a Saudi pilot from an American-made jet? How do you balance dialogue with the Houthis even as you are working with the Hadi government to ensure access to both the North and South of the country? How do you ensure electricity for your hard-drives when electricity comes and goes without warning? The catalogue of challenges was a daily event. And that is the job of a documentary filmmaker.
Q4: What kind of impact do you hope Hunger Ward will have and how can images and storytelling play a role in resolving man made starvation in Yemen?
I hope HUNGER WARD will eventually create enough momentum and pressure within the international community that it will become impossible to continue to justify US support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. I hope – with our many allies – that this will force the blockade over the North of Yemen to be lifted. I hope that people will watch the film and realize that the human impact of the war is too great a price to be paid for regional dominance.
I hope that people watch the film and understand the impact of the war in a different way. I hope people watch the film and become more empathetic and see their own children in the children they witness in the film.
It is a great disservice to those suffering from war to not allow them to be seen or to sanitize the ugliness of war and not show how children are dying and being grieved in Yemen. To whitewash their experiences dishonors the trust they put in us to capture and share their experiences of difficult and intimate moments.
The grief and sorrow that accompanies the death of a child is something that the global community desperately needs to see in order to begin to understand what it means for a child to die of complications from starvation in the modern world. If we in the documentary world hewed to a philosophy that if something is hard to see then it ought not be seen then photos of a 9-year-old girl being napalmed in Vietnam would never be published. And those images would never reshape public dialogue and policy surrounding the suffering of civilians in war.
Images of the reality families stricken with starvation face are vital and necessary and important in the larger conversation to mitigate civilian suffering.
Q5: Linked to the previous question, what sort of outcomes would you like to see in relation to Hunger Ward and what more can be done collectively from organisations like GRC, and other stakeholders, to achieve this?
We must demonstrate – over and over again – that the blockade over Yemen is a war crime. That it is an active and intentional effort to deprive an entire region of resources, including access to food. We must demonstrate to the international community that – regardless of the outcome or timing of the end of the conflict – starving a population is unacceptable and there should be real and abiding consequences for those responsible – including sanctions and filing charges with the ICC and others against the perpetrators.
We should also treat those perpetrating such crimes as pariahs and bar them from access to all levers of power in each and every country we can convince to do so.
Q.6: In another interview with Trevor Noah, you focus on what American citizens and the US can do about the situation, such as putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to open up the airport in Sanaa. What else do you think the rest of the international community should be doing?
See above. We must value life over profit or geo-political strategy. We must act first as citizens of the world and second as citizens of a particular country. We must value the life of every child, no matter which country they happen to be born in.
Q7: We work with the World Food Programme and no doubt you will have seen their tireless campaigns and focus on Yemen, a frontline correspondent we have collaborated with, Jane Ferguson, talked about the importance of airing harrowing images of the type seen in Hunger Ward. How do you hope Hunger Ward will capture audiences who are either now immune to such war-torn images or seek to turn away from them?
The power of cinema is the power to not only look, but to see. In order to truly see something or someone we must look and not turn away from it, no matter how hard of a thing it is to bear witness to. This is the magic and the horror of a visual medium.
My work is grounded in the notion that inherent in the power of the image – if we do not look away – is the power to generate empathy for others and in doing so, act as a catalyst for action.
GRC are working with Skye and Spin Film who created Hunger Wards to host an exclusive screening of Hunger Wards in the Hague featuring a Q&A with Skye in Autumn 2021. Follow @spin_film and @GRC_HumanRights for more information and tickets.