“Last Men In Aleppo” has earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature for its exploration of The White Helmets, the Syrian rescue team that saves people buried in the rubble after bombings in Aleppo. But the film’s producer, Kareem Abeed, and White Helmets co-founder Mahmoud Al-Hattar will not be present on Oscar Sunday after the Syrian government refused to expedite the visa process to allow them to travel to Hollywood.
Interest in the Syrian crisis and The White Helmets in particular has increased in the documentary community, as a Netflix doc largely filmed by the White Helmets won last year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Short. But “Last Men In Aleppo” is noteworthy for being the first film directed and produced by Syrians to earn an Oscar nod.
But documentaries like “Last Men In Aleppo” have come under attack by supporters of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Russia, as they have accused The White Helmets of being a front for Al-Qaeda. Because of this, al-Hattar is unable to apply for a Syrian passport, and Abeed’s interview for a visa has been scheduled for March 2, two days before the Oscars.
Even if the interview date was moved up, Abeed would face even more red tape from the U.S. State Department thanks to Donald Trump’s executive order blocking new visa applications from Syria. The film’s team is trying to petition the State Dept. to intervene, but they think aid is unlikely.
Director Feras Fayyad, who is Syrian but is currently working out of San Francisco, says he blames both Assad and Trump for the obstacles standing in his colleagues’ way, saying the Syrian government is trying to silence their message.
“Kareem is an artist, he is coming here to show the impact of the war. Films like this are the only way we can use our voices to speak out against this war,” he said. “We are doing what Americans have done for so long and that is to use art as a space and a platform for changing. And what the government is doing is building a wall to control art.”
Fayyad says that Trump and the Syrian government have both sent an “ugly message” with their policies, which he says contrasts starkly with the interactions he’s had with both Russians and Americans while presenting his film at festival like Sundance, where it won a jury prize in the World Documentary category. He says he’s met with Russians displeased with Vladimir Putin’s control over the country and their role in the Syrian conflict, while in America he’s met people in the indie film community who empathize with his team’s push for human rights.
He even says his team’s goals have a lot in common with the “Time’s Up” movement that has swept through Hollywood, saying that like activists demanding a systemic change to prevent sexual harassment, The White Helmets and his film team are fighting to speak truth to power and to give a voice to those who have been silenced.
“This Oscars is a very special Oscars because it’s a space for everyone who has had those in power try to silence them to finally talk about their struggle,” he said. “But we are being banned from sharing this moment with American women, from standing with them for justice and freedom of expression.”
“Last Men in Aleppo” is nominated alongside “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, “Faces Places,” “Icarus,” and “Strong Island.”