WASHINGTON — Feras Fayyad, the director of the documentary “Last Men in Aleppo,” says that a Russian media effort to discredit the movie isn’t only aimed at undermining its Oscar chances and the freedom of filmmakers.
“It is about bigger than me as a director,” he tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. “It is about banning the truth and banning the freedom of expression.”
The movie, among the feature documentary nominees, tells the story of the White Helmets, the volunteer search and rescue group that operates in war-torn Syria. Fayyad and his team depict scenes of carnage, devastation and death in rebel areas following Russian-backed airstrikes in support of the regime of Bashir al-Assad.
Russian media has characterized the movie as one sided, while Fayyad has been routinely targeted on social media as a terrorist sympathizer, along with the White Helmets themselves. In an interview with Variety, Fayyad showed his latest Twitter trolls that popped up within the hour, and said that even reporters who have written about the movie and figures who have praised it, like Angelina Jolie, have been attacked.
“They kept mentioning me, accuse me and accuse the film,” he said, adding that the challenge was not just overcoming feelings of being “disappointed and depressed.”
“How you can face this misinformation and [not be] scared about the future of freedom of expression in the world?” he said.
But he said that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the International Documentary Association have been important voices in countering misinformation. The Academy issued a statement last week in support of Fayyad and Kareem Abeed, the producer of the documentary, after Abeed was denied a visa to travel to the U.S. for the awards because of President Trump’s travel ban. The IDA also issued a statement condemning the Russian “smear” campaign.
“I feel like this is kind of protecting our stories and our voices, and because when you are alone you can’t do anything,” he says.
Fayyad was arrested by the Syrian government in 2011 while he was making another project just as the civil war was starting, and he was tortured. But he continued to work as a filmmaker in Syria, driven, as he says, by a “big responsibility to protect this space.” He sees himself as protecting the history of what has happened in his country.
“It is not just about me and the producer. It is not just about the film. It is about freedom of expression,” he says. “It is about these voices.”
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays from 2-3 p.m. ET/11 a.m. to noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.