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The producer and subject of Last Men in Aleppo won’t be in attendance at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards when their film competes for best feature documentary on March 4, as the Syrian government has refused to expedite the travel visa process for producer Kareem Abeed and White Helmets founding member Mahmoud Al-Hattar, who is featured in the film.
The move comes as a blow to the team behind the doc, which marks the first Syrian-produced and -directed film nominated for an Oscar.
“Kareem, my producer and fellow nominee, cannot come to the U.S. because of the Trump travel ban,” Last Men director Feras Fayyad told The Hollywood Reporter. “Barring a miracle, he will not be at the Oscars with me. We are artists and we just want to share our stories and nothing more. It’s very sad he won’t have an opportunity to share his.”
Last Men in Aleppo documents the search-and-rescue missions of the White Helmets, a volunteer organization that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria to provide medical relief amid a bloody civil war that has displaced roughly half the country’s population. The group, which was shortlisted for a 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, has drawn criticism from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his supporters, who have called it a front for Al-Qaeda.
Al-Hattar told THR that he is disappointed that he won’t be able to use the Oscar platform to condemn “Russia, Assad and everyone who represents the authorities and supplies weapons to suppress the people of Syria.”
He added, “I want to be on the Oscar stage to say, ‘It’s time to end this war and to stop those who use their power to destroy us.’”
Immediately after Last Men’s nomination was announced on Jan. 23, the film’s marketing team submitted a visa application for Abeed, who holds a Syrian passport and is currently in Turkey. But Syrian officials set his interview date for March 2, which would make it nearly impossible for him to make it to the Oscars in time. Even if he is granted a travel visa two days before the ceremony, it is highly unlikely that he would then be granted permission from the U.S. government due to President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13780, which halted new visa applications from citizens of Syria. The team is simultaneously lobbying the U.S. State Department, but has received no indication that it will intervene.
Al-Hattar, who is currently residing outside Aleppo, is stuck in a similar bureaucratic quagmire but has the added challenge of having been denied a passport. “The [Oscar] moment is important because it’s a powerful stage for people like me who have no voice to break the silence and to call out those who are causing pain and suffering to the people of Syria,” he said.
Fayyad, who is Syrian but is currently based in California and Copenhagen, also blamed Abeed and Al-Hattar’s bureaucratic troubles on the Syrian and Russian governments.
“The Syrian government doesn’t want to issue passports and visas because they use the same accusing that is used by the Russians — that [the White Helmets] work with a terrorism group. The Syrian government is under control of the Russians,” Fayyad said from San Francisco. “I know lots of Russian people, and they are not fans of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s policies [that back the Assad regime].”
There are only two ways to circumvent the U.S. travel ban: The first is if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson intervenes, which the filmmakers say is unlikely, or if the visitor is traveling to the U.S. for a meeting with a political representative. Nevertheless, the Academy’s membership and awards manager Tom Oyer presented a letter on Abeed’s behalf that states: “Kareem Abeed is a producer on the film and has been named as an Oscar nominee. He is traveling to the United States for the awards season as part of the documentary community and to attend the Academy Awards on March 4, 2018.”
With regards to the executive order and how it is affecting his colleagues, Fayyad called out the “ugly positions from President Trump” and praised Academy members for “their solidarity.” He added that the Hollywood film community is filled with “beautiful people who want to work with you and want to offer you jobs because they believe in your talent and your qualifications as a filmmaker. The real U.S. people, the real great Americans, you feel happy and beautiful to know them.”
Last Men in Aleppo, which is up against Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Faces Places, Icarus and Strong Island in the best feature documentary Oscar category, is being distributed in the U.S. by Grasshopper Film. Ryan Krivoshey, president and founder of Grasshopper, weighed in on the controversy.
“When the world tunes in to the Oscar ceremony, they should see this film and its incredible filmmaking team represented,” he said. ”America has a long history of embracing filmmakers from around the world. It would be a shame to see our country turn its back now.”
Despite the near -ertain prospect of missing his big Oscar moment, Abeed sounded a note of optimism. “The U.S. is famous for welcoming all the best and brightest from across the world. I hope to be part of that tradition,” he said.
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