Film community throws support behind Oscar-shortlisted Syrian director Feras Fayyad after visa denial

A letter, signed by more than 100 notable figures, was sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to let 'The Cave' filmmaker into the US

90th Academy Awards - Oscars Arrivals – Hollywood, California, U.S., 04/03/2018 – (L-R) Soren Steen, Feras Fayyad and Kareem Abeed. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
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The International Documentary Association has sent a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to let Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad into the United States to represent his documentary.

Fayyad was barred from travelling to the US last month to promote his critically acclaimed The Cave due to visa issues. The Cave is one of 15 feature-length documentaries still in the running for an Academy Award as part of its Oscars shortlist. Directors attending the events leading up to the Academy Awards , which will take place on Sunday, February 9, are considered a key part of the Oscars race.

"Feras Fayyad is a respected and accomplished documentary filmmaker, but because he is Syrian he has been denied a visa to visit the United States in support of his latest film, The Cave," the IDA's executive director, Simon Kilmurry, said in the letter.

The statement was signed by more than 100 notable figures in the international documentary community. These include Academy member Joan Churchill and Alex Gibney, whose Taxi to the Dark Side won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2008.

Last year, Fayyad became the first Syrian director to be nominated for an Academy Award when Last Men in Aleppo was up for Best Documentary. Last month, Fayyad won the Best Writing award at the IDA documentary awards with The Cave's co-writer Alisar Hassan.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, December 29, the Syrian filmmaker revealed that his visa to the US was denied. Fayyad said he had a number of events to attend to promote his documentary. “I hold a Syrian passport and I am currently living in exile in Copenhagen, Denmark ... I was meant to be in the United States right now, but instead I am stuck because the visa I need to enter United States has not been granted to me,” Fayyad wrote.

"I should be attending the IDA and Cinema Eye Honours, where I am also a nominee, alongside [a number of] events to represent The Cave […] but I can't because of the visa."

The Cave premiered on September 5, 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award for Documentaries. The film follows a dedicated team of female doctors as they tirelessly treat casualties in an underground hospital, all while battling systemic sexism in war-torn Syria.

“It's not my choice to be born in Syria. I am a filmmaker," Fayyad wrote in the Facebook post. "All I want is to have the opportunity to tell this story in person [to] everyone. It’s not fair […] that I will lose the opportunity to share my story, which comes from my soul and my pain and my determination to fight for my right to express and tell stories about the devastating experiences that I face with my people every day.”

This is not the first time Fayyad and his team have had visa-related trouble. In 2018, Kareem Abeed, the producer on Fayyad's film Last Men in Aleppo, was initially barred from entering the US due to Donald Trump's travel ban. It was thought he would be unable to attend the Oscars, but his visa was granted after an appeal just days before the ceremony.

In an interview with The National in November, Fayyad said his film was an attempt to shame the world into action by showing the consequences of its inaction. "My mission was to bring this situation into a documentary so emotional that people connect to, feel and understand the impact of these war crimes on the civilians who want to stay and don't have any intention of leaving. I feel this is the story of millions of Syrians; a story that should be seen by everyone."

Fayyad was tortured by the al-Assad regime when he was detained for 15 months for filming a documentary about the protests in 2011. “The devastating experience left me with severe psychological, mental and physical damage that I am still suffering from,” the filmmaker wrote, “but that didn’t stop me from doing what I do. It made me more determined to continue making films, because, for me, it is a battle to confront [those] who tortured me.”

Fayyad said he found that the documentary platform was the only way he could express the injustice happening in Syria. "The Cave is [the] only platform to confront [those] who tortured me, who took over and occupied my childhood, my family home and my freedom."