Oscars off limits to Syrians behind “The White Helmets”, “Watani”

Plans to celebrate the Syrians behind two Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, The White Helmets and Watani: My Homeland, at the star-studded Academy Awards ceremony scheduled to be held next month in Hollywood have been ...
January 30, 2017

Plans to celebrate the Syrians behind two Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, The White Helmets and Watani: My Homeland, at the star-studded Academy Awards ceremony scheduled to be held next month in Hollywood have been dashed because of a temporary ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump on refugees and citizens hailing from seven Muslim-majority countries.

But the filmmakers behind the docs who are unaffected by the ban —  imposed late Friday by executive order on citizens and refugees from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia —  say they will still attend the event to speak out against what one director called “another devastating blow to refugees who have already suffered so much.”

“It’s just a terrible and wrong sign for a country like the U.S., which is known for being open, for its creativity and for the pursuit of the American dream. This is just not the country everyone knows about,” said Marcel Mettelsiefen, director of Watani, which chronicles the flight of a Syrian mother and her four children from Aleppo to Germany.

The woman at the center of the film, Hala Kamil (pictured, above), mother to Mohamed, Helen, Farah and Sarah, currently lives in Germany, and, though legally entitled to stay in the country, has no Germany citizenship, nor does she have a Syrian passport due to the ongoing conflict in her homeland. That’s meant that she is unable to attend the Oscar ceremony, as planned, said Mettelsiefen, a German filmmaker who spent four years filming the family.

Kamil has previously traveled to the U.S. to deliver a speech at the United Nations and in Washington, D.C. on behalf of female refugees.

The travel ban, said Mettelsiefen, “is just more proof that what she has been trying to fight – the stigmatizing of the Muslim community by the narrative of the Islamic State…The majority of her religion are peaceful people, that is why she opened up to a Germany filmmaker over four years to film a female-led Muslim family, to show that they are not so different, that there is no reason to fear.”

Mettelsiefen said he will be attend the Oscars, even if Kamil cannot, adding he can’t miss the opportunity to further encourage Americans and others around the world to step up civil efforts to combat the rise in far-right political sentiments across the West.

“There is a movement right now, a huge political reaction, to everything the current government is doing within the U.S. Civil society is awakening and it is very strong and very inspiring. It would be the wrong thing to say I am not coming,” said the director.

Joanna Natasegara, producer of the Oscar-nominated doc The White Helmets, which follows the life-saving efforts of a volunteer rescue force working in war-torn Aleppo and Turkey, said Raed Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, and Khaled Khateeb, a young cinematographer who captured much of the harrowing rescue work, have also been barred from attending the Feb. 26 event in Los Angeles.

Members of the White Helmets are nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and Saleh has already spoken several times in Washington, D.C., Natasegara noted in a statement.

“These people are the bravest humanitarians on the planet, and the idea that they could not be able to come with us and enjoy that success is just abhorrent,” said Natasegara.

The film was produced by Grain Media and Violet Films and acquired by Netflix.

With the nominations of Watani, The White Helmets, and 4.1 Miles in the Documentary Short category, and the documentary feature Fire At Sea, the Academy has recognized a growing thematic thread running through many of this year’s films: the plight of refugees and their efforts to find a better life for their families.

The ban is also cited as the reason behind award-winning director Hussein Hassan’s withdrawal from attending the upcoming Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival,to be held March 3-12. Hassan had intended to attend the festival to witness the North American premiere of his film, Reseba – The Dark Wind, a drama shot at the front line of the war between the Kurds and so-called Islamic State in Iraq. He has since withdrawn his visa application to the U.S. Consulate “as an act of peaceful protest,” according to Mehmet Aktas, producer of the film.unnamed (6)

“Hussein Hassan risked everything to present the true face of the war. Hassan (pictured, right) is not a fighter at the front line, he fights with his artistic soul against terrorism and crimes,” Aktas said.

Miami Film Festival director Jaie Laplante said the festival will proceed with the screening of film as scheduled, but with a deep sense of loss and disappointment.

“One of Miami Film Festival’s core values is to bridge cultural understanding, to provoke thought and discussion, and The Dark Wind is one of the most timely, moving and important films in this year’s Festival,” said Laplante. “It is essential that roadblocks not be put in place that will prevent artists from the free discussion of their work, and equally essential that the world’s artists are made to feel welcome in the United States.”

Over the weekend, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose film The Salesman is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language movie, has also said the travel ban has meant that he won’t attend this year’s event. He told The New York Times that he had intended to go to the ceremony to bring attention to what he called an “unjust” ban, but, on Sunday, decided to abandon the effort “even if exceptions were to be made for my trip.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.