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April 17, 2021

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Oregon’ filmmaker shines light on hunger

Documentary on civil war in Yemen gets Oscar nod

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PORTLAND – Skye Fitzgerald’s film, “Hunger Ward,” is nominated for an Academy Award in the best documentary short subject category.

It’s the second time in three years that one of the Oregon-based director’s films has earned an Oscar nomination. But in a phone conversation, Fitzgerald sounds more concerned about the tragedy the film depicts than about honors.

“I’m angry,” says Fitzgerald. “I’m angry as a filmmaker. I’m angry as a human being. I’m angry as a dad that our tax dollars are being used to starve children.”

In “Hunger Ward,” Fitzgerald examines the ongoing civil war in Yemen, specifically the children suffering from malnutrition as a result of the conflict and blockades that prevent food and medicine from being brought into the country.

Though only about 40 minutes in length, “Hunger Ward” offers a powerful look at the crisis. The film focuses on two therapeutic feeding centers in Yemen, and the efforts of two health care workers, Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and nurse Mekkia Mahdi, as they and their colleagues try to save the lives of children emaciated and weak from hunger.

“It’s an actively forgotten war,” Fitzgerald, who lives in Happy Valley, Ore., says of the civil strife in Yemen.

The foreign powers that control access to the country deny access to journalists, Fitzgerald says. “They don’t want people in the West to know or understand the depth of the suffering.”

“Hunger Ward” is streaming on Paramount+, and is also available to view online as part of the 2021 Oscar Nominated Short Films program. The Hollywood Theatre in Portland and the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver are among the cinemas with screening opportunities.

The film is the third in what Fitzgerald regards as a trilogy of films about crises affecting refugees and displaced persons. The first, “50 Feet From Syria” (2015), looked at the work of doctors located on the Syrian border. The second, “Lifeboat” (2018), was an Oscar-nominated documentary about volunteers trying to rescue refugees who fled Libya even if it meant the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.

Difficult process

Fitzgerald and his crew filmed “Hunger Ward” in Yemen in early 2020, just before the coronavirus shut down international travel. He learned of Alsadeeq and Mahdi, and the work they were doing, through colleagues and journalists, including Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, who also has roots in Oregon.

“I reached out to both,” Fitzgerald says, and “started conversations with them.”

He’s been asked before why Alsadeeq and Mahdi would “open up their work in such an intimate way to a camera. Frankly, they wanted us there, because they both felt that the West didn’t understand the nature of the conflict, the scale of the conflict,” and its effect on children.

The women thought the only way could change that was to get the story out widely to other countries, Fitzgerald says.

Getting into the country and filming was a challenging process, Fitzgerald says. Seeing the pain suffered by the starving children and their grieving relatives can be difficult for viewers. It was also difficult for Fitzgerald, as he says.

“It’s hard to stand in a room and watch a child die,” he says. “It’s not something I take lightly. It’s something you have to bear witness to with dignity and respect. It takes a toll on you. These are children.”

Fitzgerald says he hopes “Hunger Ward” is “a sort of gut punch to anyone who watches it, to help us understand that the conflict in Yemen is human caused, and it can be ended by humans, especially by Americans.”

The film ends with statements criticizing the U.S. and other countries as being complicit in the conflict.

Fitzgerald says the Joe Biden administration has altered course, and pledged to stop supporting offensive operations in Yemen.

“It’s a hopeful start,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald also hopes “Hunger Ward” may raise awareness of the conflict in Yemen and the crisis that continues there.

“I think, for me, it really does come back to this core principle that each of us only has so much time on this planet,” Fitzgerald says. “And we have to make it count.”

The website for “Hunger Ward” (www.hungerward.org) includes links with more information, and suggested actions people can take.

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