The documentary community is rallying around Syrian-born filmmaker Feras Fayyad, director of Oscar-shortlisted film The Cave, after he was denied a visa to enter the United States.
The International Documentary Association wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Friday, urging him to let Fayyad into the country to represent his film, one of 15 feature documentaries still in contention for the Academy Award.
“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, distributed by National Geographic Documentary Films,” the letter said. “The film tells an urgent story of doctors saving lives while under constant bombardment in Syria.”
[Read the letter here]
The letter was signed by the IDA’s executive director, Simon Kilmurry, and other prominent figures in documentary including Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Academy member Joan Churchill (Last Days in Vietnam).
“It’s appalling that Feras has been denied a visa,” Kilmurry tells Deadline exclusively. “There’s really no good excuse for it. [He’s] been coming back and forth to the U.S. for quite a while and to deny him entry now, it’s just crazy.”
The State Department granted Fayyad permission to enter the U.S. for three months in September, an opportunity the director used to attend screenings of The Cave at the Camden International Film Festival in Maine and AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
After returning to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he lives in exile, Fayyad applied for a new visa at the U.S. embassy there in December. He had hoped to attend the IDA Documentary Awards in Hollywood, where The Cave was nominated for Best Writing, but Fayyad tells Deadline a consular official rejected his application.
“‘Your nationality is not allowed to apply for a visa,’” he said the official told him. “I asked, ‘What’s the reason?’ She said, ‘The Executive Order 13769 from the president of the United States.”
That order, issued by President Trump shortly after he took office in 2017 and later amended by Executive Order 13780, prohibited citizens of Syria and six other predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S., “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.”
“I told [the consular official] I’m just going to promote my movie… I’m an artist and I’m a filmmaker,” Fayyad recounts. “She said, ‘I understand your frustration, but we can’t do anything.’”
The Cave tells the story of Dr. Amani Ballour, the first woman to lead a hospital in Syria, who made heroic efforts to save lives in a subterranean medical facility in Eastern Ghouta, as the city sustained constant bombing by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. Fayyad says Dr. Amani, who fled to Turkey after the Assad regime crushed the last remnants of resistance in Ghouta, has also been denied a visa to visit the United States.
“Every time she has applied she has been rejected, unfortunately,” Fayyad says. “And now we’re trying to find an immigration lawyer who can help her…with a case of refugee travel.”
In 2018, Fayyad became the first Syrian filmmaker to earn an Academy Award nomination, for his documentary Last Men in Aleppo. Back then, the State Department withheld a visa for the film’s Syrian-born producer, Kareem Abeed, to attend the Oscars, but relented right before the ceremony after a pressure campaign mounted by the IDA and the Academy.
Fayyad learned The Cave had made the Oscar documentary shortlist just hours after his latest visa application was denied.
“I got a call from National Geographic in the middle of the night. They told me, ‘We’re sorry we’re calling you but you have to wake up, this is important.’ And I said, ‘What’s happening now? Is there bad news?’ [They replied], ‘You were just shortlisted,’” Fayyad recalls. “I felt so happy. I had been a little bit like losing energy and everything from this visa situation; [the news] just gave me a little bit of hope.”
The visa denial has not only kept Fayyad from coming to the U.S. to support his film’s Oscar chances, but prevented him from accepting an invitation to serve on a documentary jury at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.
“Feras’ visa denial is a loss for the Sundance Film Festival, for independent art, and for the spirit of cultural exchange,” Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam says in an exclusive statement to Deadline. “Our community of independent artists is global, and the stories we showcase transcend borders — even if the artists themselves cannot. Closing our borders to artists, or complicating their entry to the point that travel isn’t feasible, is an unacceptable attempt to stop the exchange of ideas and inspiration that is so vital to global culture.”
The filmmaker is not only coping with the visa issue, but with worries back in his native Syria. In a Facebook post on Christmas Eve, Fayyad revealed his parents and younger sisters were “forcibly displaced” from their home outside Idlib, amid a brutal campaign by Syrian government and Russian forces to squelch the last pocket of resistance to the regime.
“My mom, I told her, ‘Just film everything around you. Maybe we can tell the story about you one day,’” Fayyad notes. “She told me how much she’s scared…I live with this fear day by night, all the time.”
Fayyad says being prevented from visiting the United States, makes him feel powerless to aid his family or his homeland.
“The only way I can help my country is screen this movie in front of the people,” he insisted. “We need to find a way to make the change for [Syria] and build a democratic system facing the dictatorship, changing that system that kills us.”
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