But the conditions of Abeer’s life, far from storybook, are those of cruel reality. She is one of an estimated two million children in Yemen facing starvation as a result of the country’s civil war.
“This lack of food, or lack of access to food, it’s human-caused,” Fitzgerald tells Deadline. “We often think of famine, and we think of drought, we think of crop failure, we think of locusts. This is not the case in Yemen…Hunger being used as a weapon of war [is] such a horrible thought to me.”
Aged 6, Abeer weights but 12 pounds. Omeima, a 10-year-old girl who appears in Hunger Ward, weighs only 24 pounds.
“I have a 10-year-old son who weighs 93 pounds,” Fitzgerald says. “That really hits home with me as a parent.”
Fitzgerald filmed his documentary at two clinics that treat malnourished children—one in South Yemen, a part of the country controlled by the Saudi-backed government, and one in North Yemen, an area controlled by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Gaining permission to enter Yemen required a major effort, the director says.
“It took me eight and a half months to convince the Yemen embassy in [Washington], D.C. to give us visas,” he recounts. “We had actually two visa applications going, because you also need visas from the Houthi rebel group in order to access their part of the country.”
Once he entered Yemen, it didn’t take long to witness the tragic toll of war.
“We’d literally been filming two hours,” he recalls, “and the first child passed away in front of us.”
Her name was Asila, just a baby, her skin ulcerated from edema caused by starvation.
“The family…invited us to go to the mosque with them and to do the prayer for the dead, to document the ritual cleansing of the body,” he shares. “And then we followed them to the cemetery, where they buried the body by nightfall. And that was our first day of shooting. And almost every day had some event like that as part of it.”
He adds, “I wanted to make sure that I honored the experience of this family who had offered me access…and to not turn away. And to give people as immersive an experience as possible, to understand in a visceral way what it’s like for someone to lose a child because of hunger in 2020.”
Fitzgerald took substantial risks to film Hunger Ward, a contender for Oscar attention this year. At one point he says he and his film team were stopped at a checkpoint on the road between North and South Yemen.
“We were detained for about eight hours or so by a local warlord…That was probably the sketchiest moment of the entire shoot,” he remembers, “because there was no guarantee that we were going to be released, or whether it was going to take a dark turn towards kidnapping and ransom, or something else.”
The war in Yemen and the plight of its children has received relatively little attention in the U.S., but our government is, in Fitzgerald’s words, “complicit” in what’s happening there.
“As Americans, we ought to care about it, because our tax dollars are funding it. We’re funding operational support of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign,” he points out. “We’re selling arms through American companies for the missiles that are killing civilians in Yemen right now.”
The upcoming change of administrations in the U.S. may offer hope of a policy change on Yemen.
“What we’re asking for, as not only a film team, but as a political movement, is an executive order from the Biden administration in the early days of the administration, to stop all support of the Saudi-led coalition, especially operations support and selling of arms,” Fitzgerald states. “And if that happened, I think eventually the conflict would resolve itself once Saudi Arabia stopped receiving so much support from the West.”
Hunger Ward marks the third in a trilogy of short films Fitzgerald has made, including the Oscar-nominated Lifeboat (2018), a harrowing look at the migrant crisis on the Mediterranean. 50 Feet from Syria (2015), shortlisted for the Academy Awards, told the story of an Arab-American doctor who volunteered his services at the Syrian-Turkish border to treat people wounded in Syria’s civil war.
“I’ve always known I wanted this to be a trilogy of films, in some form or fashion about displacement,” he notes. “Last time I checked, one percent of the world’s population is currently displaced, which is around almost 80 million human beings. And the numbers are going the wrong direction.”
In 2020 more than 100,000 people within Yemen were forced from their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration, a UN-affiliated group. War and starvation were the principal causes.
The medical workers Fitzgerald interviewed for Hunger Ward do their utmost to save children, but a sense of despair pervades.
“The foundations of our society are gone,” laments Mekkia, a nurse at a clinic in the North. “We have gone back a hundred years.”
She hands a balloon to Abeer with “I Heart You” printed on it, but the child is too weak to play with it.
“Abeer, like the other children,” says Mekkia fatalistically, “will either live or die.”
In the South, Omeimi clutches a stuffed animal as she leaves the clinic for an uncertain future.
“Day after day famine is increasing,” notes Aida, a doctor who treated Omeimi. “Enough, enough of this war.”
For Fitzgerald, the goal of Hunger Ward, as with his earlier films, is simple.
“I feel like what I try to do is bring some of those stories to light,” he says, “so that more of the world cares.”