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TV Academies Send Letter to Secretary of State Protesting Denial of Entry for Documentarians

UPDATED: In a rare joint action, both TV academies have banded together and sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking him to act on journalists and documentarians “being denied entry to the United States despite recognition by the American television industry.”

The letter points to the decision last month to deny entry to Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad, who was not able to attend the International Documentary Association’s Documentary Awards in Los Angeles and accept his prize for best writing, for “The Cave.”

The State Department forwarded the letter to the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which is responsible for visa matters. In a response to the academies, Ian Brownlee
, the Bureau’s principal deputy assistant secretary, said it could report that “the appropriate U.S. Embassy has been in touch with Mr. Fayyad’s attorneys to obtain the remaining documents needed in order to complete the processing of his application. The Department wishes to assure you that Mr. Fayyad’s case is being given every possible consideration consistent with U.S. immigration law.”

“The Cave,” which was just nominated for an Oscar, comes from Fayyad and his primary cinematographers Muhammed Khair Al Shami, Ammar Sulaiman and Mohammed Eyad, who followed Dr. Amani Ballor, a pediatrician and the manager of an underground hospital in war-torn Al Ghouta, as she tended to patients and tried to maintain morale as bombs dropped all around her and her team. Between 2012 to 2018, they shot roughly 1,000 hours of material.

Fayyad had previously won an Emmy in 2018 for “Last Man in Aleppo,” which received the outstanding current affairs documentary category, administered by the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. “Last Man in Aleppo” was broadcast nationally by PBS.

In a statement sent to Variety last week, Fayyad’s spokesperson detailed the documentarian’s trouble in obtaining a visa to return to the U.S.: “While waiting in Copenhagen over the holidays for the US Embassy to once again review his application for entry to the US after initially refusing him entry, Feras learned that his family, specifically his parents, were in great danger in Syria, and had to flee their home. He is right now helping and supporting his siblings and parents. When he is able to return to Copenhagen, we are hopeful the US Embassy will grant him entry to the US so he can resume touring with the film. While the events portrayed in ‘The Cave’ take place largely between 2016-2018, the situation has not improved, and in many areas has in fact gotten worse. For Feras and his family, the horrors of war are still very much a reality of their daily lives.”

The letter to Pompeo was signed by NATAS chairman Terry O’Reilly and president/CEO Adam Sharp, as well as Los Angeles-based Television Academy chairman/CEO Frank Scherma and president/COO Maury McIntyre.

“The rejection of Mr. Fayyad’s application echoes the experience reported by other documentarians who have been denied entry to the United States while seeking to attend Emmy Award ceremonies at which their work has been nominated,” the letter said. “It appears that these visas may have been denied solely based on applicant nationality. But it is precisely their nationalities that make programs such as those produced by Mr. Fayyad so compelling.”

The letter notes that it is the nationalities of filmmakers like Fayyad that helps them tell “important stories of the highest relevance to the American public’s understanding of the Middle East and of U.S. policy in the region. The work is chosen for U.S. network broadcast and recognized by Emmy judges partly because of this public interest.”

The academy leaders stress that when “creators are denied the opportunity of full recognition of their work and interaction with their respectful peers,” their message is “suppressed.”

The orgs end the letter by urging the State Department to waive restrictions “that prevent their rightful recognition. The impact of the work and the well-deserved respect of our community handily outweigh blanket policy positions that err in overlooking such individual merit.”

The letter has been sent to Pompeo and also posted on the NATAS and TV Academy social media and websites. In his response, Brownlee wrote that “the Department recognizes the important contributions international filmmakers and documentarians make to the culture of the United States and strive to facilitate the legitimate travel of artists to the United States, regardless of nationality.”

Here is the NATAS and TV Academy full letter, below:

And here is the Bureau of Consular Affairs response:

[Pictured: Feras Fayyad.]

(Brent Lang contributed to this report.)

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