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Syrian Films at Sundance Face Tough Road Ahead After Trump’s Travel Ban

As news broke over the weekend that filmmaker Asghar Farhadi would be prevented by Donald Trump’s executive order from attending the Oscars, where his film “The Salesman” is nominated for best foreign film, at least two Sundance filmmakers were also grappling with the challenges presented by the ban.

At the Sundance Film Festival Awards on Saturday night, before Firas Fayyad’s documentary “Last Men in Aleppo” won the world cinema grand jury prize, he told Variety, “I don’t know what this means now. I don’t know what I will do.”

Fayyad is referring to the aftermath of the order signed Friday banning immigration and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Fayyad, an award-winning Syrian filmmaker twice held by Bashar Assad’s intelligence because of his previous film, made “Last Men in Aleppo” along with co-director and editor Steen Johannesen, in partnership with the Aleppo Media Center, to show the brutal human toll of the Syrian war. The film follows  local TV photographers and videographers who also risk their lives to get the information out to the world along with volunteers who form the rescue group that came to be known as “The White Helmets” over the most recent four-year Syrian war.

“[After I learned of the ban],” Fayyad said in an email, “I felt I should now work even harder to get the people in the United States to watch ‘Last Men in Aleppo’ and take a look at why the Syrians leave Syria, who the White Helmets are, why Russia bombs Syria, how U.S. citizens can help the Syrians, and why the [executive order] is wrong.”

Fayyad is set to leave the country Monday to return to Europe, where he’s been living since escaping the turmoil in Syria. This means he won’t be able to come back to the U.S. for the unforeseen future, and as a filmmaker with a film still in search of a distributor, that could be detrimental to the sale of the film.

“This decision deprived me of my right as an artist and filmmaker from telling the story behind the war in Syria,” he said. “But I trust in U.S. citizens — they will help to change this and to bring justice.”

Another filmmaker directly affected by the ban is Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman and the subjects of his film at this year’s Sundance, “City of Ghosts,” which was acquired by Amazon for approximately $2 million.

The men and women of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) — the Syrian citizen-journalist group featured in the film “have suffered great personal loss in their fight against ISIS and are the kind of Syrians who should be able to travel to the U.S.,” Heineman wrote in an email to Variety. Heineman said they received standing ovations at all five Sundance screenings after speaking about the atrocities being committed against the Syrian people.

Like Fayyad, under this order, the members of RBSS are indefinitely barred from returning, or coming, to the U.S. “which is a travesty that violates what America stands for in the world,” added Heineman, who posted a statement on Sunday addressing Trump on Facebook. The statement read in part, “These guys are also ‘fighting’ ISIS with their cameras and their pens by exposing what ISIS is doing to their hometown of Raqqa. After members of their group as well as family members were assassinated, they were forced to flee Syria and are currently in exile.”

“Some live in Europe, where they have refugee status, while other members still live in Raqqa, Syria, the capital of the Islamic State. They have lost several members of their group as well as family members both in Syria and Turkey and live in daily fear for what might come next,” Heineman said.

Heineman feels the executive order singles out Syria by indefinitely prohibiting deserving immigrants and refugees from entering the U.S. “The Syrian people have suffered immensely from the multiple tyrannies of the Assad regime, ISIS, and other militant groups,” he said. “[This] senselessly compounds an enormous human tragedy that I’ve witnessed firsthand in making my film. It is in stark contrast to the traditions of our nation, which from colonial times forward, has been built by refugees fleeing persecution.”

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