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With Children Near Death, 'Hunger Ward' Is A Hard Film To Watch

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The film "Hunger Ward" is often very hard to watch. It turns the camera on children in two hospitals in Yemen. They often look - and this is difficult to say as well - skeletal. Their small ribs burst through their soft flesh. Their arms look not much thicker than the tubes that protrude from them. Deprived of war, the children are near death in the midst of Yemen's civil war, a conflict in which a Saudi-led coalition with support from the United States, the U.K. and France has blockaded humanitarian supplies.

There's no narration to the film, very few captions. And more than once, we look on children as they take their last breaths. At one point, Dr. Aida Al-Sadeeq looks into the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HUNGER WARD")

AIDA AL-SADEEQ: I don't have magic to change everything. It's not my role.

SIMON: "Hunger Ward" is a nominee in the best documentary short subject category for tomorrow night's Academy Awards. It is the second Oscar nomination for the director Skye Fitzgerald, whose other films include "Lifeboat" and "50 Feet from Syria."

Skye Fitzgerald joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

SKYE FITZGERALD: Scott, it's an absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The people you follow in the hospital, the medical personnel, seem to want to tell the world about their world.

FITZGERALD: Yeah. You know, Scott, one of the things that surprised me the most about doing this project was that fact, just how we were given complete and almost unadulterated access to every moment. They needed people to know that their own children were dying for lack of food. Only by other people knowing, especially sort of the broader world, would a change be possible. And so we were given access to every moment.

SIMON: Including, as we note, when children actually pass away before us. How did families feel about sharing that?

FITZGERALD: I expected families to sort of turn away, to close the door, to ask us to leave. And, Scott, frankly, that just really didn't happen. Only once did a family member ask us to momentarily stop filming, and it only lasted for a very short period of time. And then she invited us back in and said, no, please - actually, I do want people to see this. I do want people to know what's happening here with my grandchild because it shouldn't be happening.

SIMON: The nurse we meet in your film, Mekkia Mahdi, talks about Yemen. She says, all the pillars of our society have been destroyed. And you see the shattered apartments and the schools and no food, no work and, of course, families. She says, we have gone back 100 years. Is there much of anything left that resembles what we would call normal life?

FITZGERALD: If you look at just the infrastructure of the country, you know, access to stores, to paycheck's, easy transit from one side of town to another in these conflict areas, I would say normal life does not exist in Yemen right now. And yet you see this incredible resilience. And I think nurse Mekkia and Dr. Al-Sadeeq are examples of that, right? Both of them, despite this fractured landscape they're working within, continue to do this work as if it's the most normal thing in the world to get up in the morning and to walk into a therapeutic feeding center and to be faced with dozens of children on the verge of death because of simple lack of food.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEEDING CENTER AMBIENCE)

SIMON: There are a couple of moments that make you smile. I think of that wonderful little girl, Abeer. And I think of the nurse blowing up the balloons and the children playing with balloons.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HUNGER WARD")

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE: (Unintelligible).

SIMON: They need to play. Their instinct to play with balloons is still there - still strong.

FITZGERALD: Yeah. You know, those moments of selflessness, those moments where Abeer tries to play with the balloon, where Mekkia tries to get her to smile - you know, I believe that those images are as important as anything else in the film because for me, they're images of hope. They're images of resilience. And, you know, I really see Mekkia and Dr. Al-Sadeeq as these just incredible human beings, part Florence Nightingale, part Mother Teresa.

SIMON: Yeah.

FITZGERALD: They've devoted their entire lives to this endeavor, to the simple act of saving a child. And I just don't see anything more important in the world than that.

SIMON: I don't want to distract for more than a few seconds from the dire humanitarian situation that you documented, but I do want to ask how difficult it was to get this film made.

FITZGERALD: We had a really hard time breaking the journalist embargo over the country that Saudi Arabia, and particularly the Emirates, have imposed, It took us almost 9 months to get our visas. And then once we're in country, we're limited to only one month to actually film the entire project. And then, of course, it is a conflict zone. And so we had to tread very carefully in almost every respect just to protect myself and my other crew members, but also the families we're collaborating with and the doctor and the nurse.

SIMON: What do you tell goodhearted people who may say, look; what's happening in Yemen is tragic, but we have our problems here? What am I supposed to do about it?

FITZGERALD: That's a valid point of view. And I think it's not enough, especially if you're an American. And it's not enough because the starving of children in Yemen right now as we do this interview, Scott, is happening in part because the U.S. government is supporting it.

There's a chokehold over the country right now that is being funded in part by U.S. taxpayer dollars that's supporting Saudi Arabia in the closure of the major airport, which allows food stuffs and health workers in and out, as well as the port of Hodeidah, which allows the free flow of humanitarian aid in. And we are giving geopolitical cover to Saudi Arabia to continue to enforce that blockade, which leads directly to the death of children in Mekkia's clinic because diesel to her clinic gets there through the port of Hodeidah. So we're complicit. That's why we've been trying to use this film to really raise awareness and force the Biden administration to alter course so that we can hopefully end this blockade and allow children like Abeer to thrive.

SIMON: Skye Fitzgerald - his documentary film nominated for an Oscar this weekend, is "Hunger Ward." Thank you so much for being with us.

FITZGERALD: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.