EXCLUSIVE: Syrian Oscar nominee Kareem Abeed still can’t quite believe he made it to walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
The producer of Feras Fayyad’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Last Men in Aleppo had almost given up on attending the show after his visa request was denied under President Donald Trump’s travel ban on citizens of eight countries, most of them Muslim-majority. “Up until the last minute, we had no hope,” he told Deadline in an exclusive interview on Oscar eve. “On the last day of February, we got a visa and it really surprised us.”
The State Department reversed course, granting an appeal that allowed Abeed and two Syrian cinematographers who worked on the film to fly to Los Angeles. Abeed credits the switch to a campaign of public pressure that included protests by the International Documentary Association and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which had issued statements denouncing the visa denials. “Publicity is the reason the appeal went faster,” Abeed said. “It made an impact.”
The producer and cinematographers made an unexpected and dramatic appearance at the IDA’s DocuDay on Saturday, an all-day event showcasing the Oscar-nominated documentary features and shorts. As Fayyad was about to begin a Q&A on Last Men in Aleppo, his team swept into the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills, earning a standing ovation from the audience.
“I think it’s fantastic that they made it to the U.S.,” Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the IDA, told Deadline. “We wrote to Rep. Joe Kennedy and asked him to pass on a request to the State Department, to the Syria desk, to reverse the denial of the visa. And you never know how much influence those things have but these are incredibly important stories and to deny a visa to these guys because of where they come from is just unconscionable.”
Speaking with Deadline, Abeed and Fayyad said the State Department about-face shows the distinction between President Trump and Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president who wields total control over his government’s policies.
“America is not Trump,” Fayyad said. “It’s not like our country, Syria, where it’s just Assad who decides. In the U.S. it’s the people who decide…Trump can make a [travel ban] but because of the power of the voices and democracy people got Kareem and the team here.”
Fayyad, who is based in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been able to travel freely to the U.S. and other parts of the world in support of Last Men. The film tells the story of the courageous “White Helmets” in Aleppo, Syria–civil defense volunteers who rush to the aid of victims injured in relentless bombing campaigns by Russian jets and Syrian-government forces.
Abeed, currently based in Turkey, has been unable to attend any international event for the film he produced, until now. “All the screenings at festivals, we couldn’t attend any of them because we don’t have legal papers in Turkey,” he said. “This is our first chance to go out of Turkey and attend an event for our film. And it’s the Oscars.”
White Helmets co-founder Mahmoud Al-Hattar, one of the key figures in the documentary, has been prevented from leaving Syria for the Academy Awards by the Syrian government, which claims his group has connections to terrorism. There has been a concerted effort by the Assad regime and its allies in the Kremlin to discredit not only the White Helmets, but the filmmakers of Last Men in Aleppo.
“The regime and Russia produced a film against us, claiming we are spies and terrorists,” Abeed says. “They spread this idea to the people and the media.”
Fayyad accuses Russia of trying to sow disinformation to counter the work of the White Helmets.
“The White Helmets are saving 100,000 lives from the destruction and our film is about them and their voices…What Russia tried to do is ban voices for justice and deny the freedom of expression,” he said. “But we feel humbled by people that support this film and stand behind us.”
Fayyad and Abeed said during the Academy Awards their minds will be on Syria and the millions suffering there. “We feel lucky to survive and we feel guilty because we survived,” Fayyad said.
Abeed added, “In this war I lost a lot of things. I lost my house, my city, everything. We wish in this time we can use this film to stop the deaths of more people. I don’t want anyone to lose their family or friends as I did.”