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When he was a student in film school, Feras Fayyad listed on a card the awards ceremonies he planned to attend one day and kept it in his wallet. Years later, when war broke out, the Syrian filmmaker was arrested, held for nine months and tortured. He escaped to Turkey when he was finally released and is now based in Copenhagen and California. With his latest movie, Last Men in Aleppo, about the fearless White Helmets, a citizen collective dedicated to rescuing bombing victims from rubble, Fayyad ticked off the lead item on the card in his wallet — he is the first Syrian ever to be nominated for an Oscar.
“Time stopped,” he says of hearing of his nomination, “and my mind thought of the years, the tragedy, the sadness, the hopes and dreams and all the filmmakers who tried to bring something to light and say something with urgency.” Fayyad will be able to attend the March 4 show, but producer Kareem Abeed and White Helmets founding member Mahmoud Al-Hattar, who is featured in the film, will not because the Syrian government has refused to expedite the travel visa process for them.
Fayyad was especially hoping to have Al-Hattar, who currently lives outside Aleppo, walk the carpet by his side. In the film, he is often seen at the side of Khaled, the main character, who was killed after filming was completed.
“Khaled had a big impact on me because I found his conduct toward people and the volunteers so great,” Al-Hattar recalls of his friend. “I couldn’t believe that this guy, this nice guy, the one who is loved by everyone, was killed. He had a big impact on my life, and it was a turning point for me as a volunteer.”
At one point in the film, Khaled exclaims, “Where is the world?” as the country crumbles around him and the international community stands silent. In some ways, Fayyad’s movie attempts to answer that question by engaging the outer world. To do that, it takes exposure. So yes, an Oscar would help.
“I dreamed to one day make it. But everything has become about my country and how can we get attention,” Fayyad says, thinking back on his film-school days. “After this, I look at the small card in my wallet, and I feel like those are small dreams.”
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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