“There was only ever going to be one way we were going to be able to shoot this film, and that was by being really, really small,” the director said during a session at Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees awards-season event. That meant no boom operator or other typical crew; just Fitzgerald and his director of photography, Jeffrey Ball, shooting continuously.
The resulting MTV Documentary Films release, which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary – Short Subject, captures what Fitzgerald calls the “invisible war” in Yemen. Due to years of civil conflict and the blocking of aid shipments from being delivered (as Saudi Arabia, with support from the U.S. and other Western powers, continues to conduct air strikes blamed for civilian deaths), Yemeni children are starving. The United Nations calls the crisis the most urgent in the world, saying 2.3 million children are projected to face acute malnutrition this year, with 400,000 likely to die without intervention.
Hunger Ward takes viewers inside one “therapeutic feeding center” in Yemen. This is no sedate, lecture-hall presentation — the film offers an immersive, compelling portrait of the overmatched but unfailingly compassionate doctors and nurses. The camera glides down hallways, revealing private anguish and valiant struggle in ways that no procession of talking heads ever could. Editor Dan Sadowsky adds just enough context for even a less-informed viewer to feel gripped by the action, and the unforgettably atmospheric, eyewitness footage does the rest.
Fitzgerald said in addition to staying small as a crew, building trust with his subjects was crucial. He said “months and months and months of dialogue” preceded the team’s arrival on the ground. The payoff is evident in every frame. In one heartbreaking scene, a doctor administers CPR to an infant, applying about as much pressure with her fingers as one might to the sternum of a sparrow who has fallen from a nest. “That is an incredibly private moment in many respects, and we never would have been able to bear witness to that unless we had the trust of everyone involved,” he said.
Even though Hunger Ward is the third film in what Fitzgerald titled his “refugee trilogy” about the region, the director felt a new level of anxiety when it came time to screen it for his subjects. Shooting had wrapped a month before Covid-19 brought a curtain down on travel, so an in-person showing was impossible. Instead, he sent the 40-minute film to Dr. Aida Alsadeeq via WhatsApp and hoped for the best.
“I was just overjoyed to hear back from her,” he said with a relieved smile. “She felt it captured the nature of her work in a fundamental way. That was very affirming.”
Check out the panel conversation above.