Academy Award-nominated documentary “Hunger Ward” paints an intimate portrait of the children in Yemen suffering from starvation and malnourishment as a result of war-induced famine. The United Nations World Food Programme estimates about 400,000 could die this year without urgent intervention, which is what director Skye Fitzerald hopes to catalyze with the film.
Overcoming a de facto embargo on journalists and working through an eight-and-a-half month-long process of obtaining visas, Fitzgerald and his team shot nonstop with two cameras for 30 days to capture the harrowing reality in Yemen’s therapeutic feeding centers. With Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and nurse Mekkia Mahdi ready for someone to finally hear their stories, Fitzgerald felt compelled to do his part in pushing for an end to Saudi Arabia’s blockade. The issue’s growing momentum inspired call-to-action letters from a coalition of celebrities, advocates and a bipartisan group of House lawmakers. Fitzgerald sat down with Variety to discuss the documentary and his optimism for action by the Biden administration.
“Hunger Ward” forces viewers to directly witness these famine-induced deaths. Were the families — particularly the mothers and grandmothers of the babies who we watch die in real-time — ever hesitant to you filming?
I think it is a little counterintuitive for us in the West to think, “why would someone open up such an intimate moment to a camera?” It’s an understandable question. We were working with some of these families for a month watching the care of the children, watching the physicians try to help them. Overwhelmingly, every family we collaborated with wanted us to cover just about every moment of care for their child, regardless of outcome. And as you saw in the film, sometimes it was a positive outcome and sometimes it wasn’t. So even when a child passed, they invited us to document what came after all the way through to the burial. That was surprising to us, but it was something that we felt we wanted to bear witness to and we wanted to do with dignity and respect.
What were your biggest logistical challenges while filming?
It is a conflict zone. Anytime you move from one area to another, you’re taking a risk because different areas of the country are controlled by different warlords and militias. You have to make those decisions very carefully, and there’s checkpoints every 10 to 15 kilometers or so. For example, when we traveled from the south to the north of the country, that took us upwards of 15 to 18 hours and 25 checkpoints to get through in a single day. And at any one of those checkpoints, we could have been detained, even though we had the proper paperwork. Fortunately, we were working with really good field producers and during the entire course of the shoot, we were only detained once. It was by a warlord who just didn’t like the fact that we were going to this territory, frankly, even though we had the proper paperwork. And fortunately, we had the right relationships with another high-level member of the Southern Transitional Council. We had dinner with him a couple months before and he called the warlord to release us.
Do you feel optimistic that the Biden administration will press Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade on Yemen?
This is a tragedy that’s unfolding right now that we as a society can intervene on. The fact that I wake up in a world where a six-year-old girl can weigh 15 pounds— horrifying to me, and I hope that it would horrify anyone who sees the film. And yet, we can do something about it; we can intervene. That’s exactly why we’ve been using the film as a vehicle for change: intervening and pressuring the Biden administration to change our government’s stance in supporting the Saudi coalition, and it’s happening. There was a bipartisan letter written to the Biden administration from the Foreign Affairs Committee that is demanding the Biden administration end the blockade of the country by stopping the support of Saudi Arabia, so we’re very hopeful at this point.
The fact that our tax dollars are going to reinforce this blockade over the country with starving children has to stop. And we can do something about it. And so that momentum has been building for months and months. I do think that the Biden Administration is going to eventually unilaterally withdraw support from the Saudi coalition. It’s gonna take some time, but I do believe it’s gonna happen.
Your website offers a place for supporters to directly donate to the featured hospitals. In addition, “Hunger Ward” is calling for large-scale action by the U.S. government. Why do you think filmmaking is a powerful medium to inspire high-level change?
It moves us in a very particular way, and it moves us in a real-time way if done well. By placing someone in a clinic in Yemen, I think you understand the real-world challenges of this beautiful work that Mekkia and Aida are doing. I think there’s no better use for cinema than that: to build empathy and to move people to action. I believe in the power of cinema just to transport us to other worlds of course and just for pure entertainment, as well. But in my case at least, I believe that we can use it in this particular way that intervenes in the real world in a powerful way that can enact change.
I really think of “Hunger Ward” as an aspirational film. I think it was a very hopeful film. If you think to the scene at the end, it’s true that the young infant, Takana, passes away. And yet Omeima, who was also treated in the same hospital, is successfully treated and leaves. I really wanted to sort of include a coexistence or embrace the duality of those two realities in the film. Even within this very challenging context of war, there is success. There is hope. And for viewers of the film, there is a way for people to engage in what they see in a real-time fashion that can intervene in the real world and save children’s lives. And what better opportunity than that?
This interview has been edited and condensed. “Hunger Ward” is available on Pluto TV and Paramount Plus.