‘The Cave’ Director Feras Fayyad Misses TCA Panel But Will Reapply For U.S. Visa; Film’s Subject Describes Horrors Of War

Peter White and Diane Gordon

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The Cave director Feras Fayyad, who earned an Oscar nomination for 2017’s Last Men in Aleppo, had been scheduled to appear at Nat Geo’s TCA session today, but his chair was left empty.

The State Department granted Fayyad permission to enter the U.S. for three months in September, an opportunity the Syria-born filmmaker used to attend screenings of Oscar-shortlisted 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 was rejected.

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The documentary will have its broadcast premiere at 9 p.m. Saturday, January 25, on Nat Geo, airing commercial-free.

In the director’s absence from TCA, The Cave producer Sigrid Dyekjær read a statement that noted Fayyad has had “quite the ordeal” over the past few weeks, including being detained by police.

“We were hoping that Feras Fayyad could be here with us today,” Dyekjær said in the statement. “While waiting on the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen to grant him another appointment, Feras received news that his aunt’s house was bombed and his parents’ and childhood home was in the line of fire in Syria. As the oldest of 10, he feels a great responsibility for his siblings and his parents. So, instead of continuing to wait on the embassy, Feras went to Turkey to be as close to his family as possible and help in any way he could.”

Read the statement in full below.

Things escalated earlier this week, when Fayyad was detained on his way into Copenhagen by immigration police. Dyekjær, who runs Danish Documentary Production, said that she rushed to the airport and was told by Fayyad that the police had used “unnecessary force in detaining him.”

“The past month has been a lot for a man who has been imprisoned and tortured in Syria and whose family is under threat and has siblings spread all over Europe,” she added. “Feras was distraught, exhausted and felt discriminated against. The police eventually released him into my care. After this ordeal and given there was no way to get here by today, Feras is instead spending the weekend with his 5-year-old daughter – who hasn’t seen him in over six weeks.”

Fayyad became the first Syrian filmmaker to earn an Academy Award nomination, for his documentary feature Last Men in Aleppo. Back then, the State Department withheld a visa for the film’s Syria-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 that The Cave had made the Oscar documentary shortlist just hours after his latest visa application was denied.

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 Ballour, who fled to Turkey after the Assad regime crushed the last remnants of resistance in Ghouta, also has been denied a visa to visit the United States.

Most of the TCA panel was spent listening to Ballour, who appeared via Skype, as she described trying to care for children and other innocent civilians caught in the crossfire during attacks in Syria. The film’s title refers to the underground hospital in Syria that was called “The Cave.” It was heartbreaking to listen to the doctor as she described one night when 1,000 people died by suffocation during a sarin gas attack and she had to choose which children she could save.

Ballour said she hopes that those who see The Cave will support the Syrian people, as there are still people suffering in prisons there. She also wants Syrian women to be supported and have the right to work outside the home.

“There are too many men who are extreme against women, who think women have to be in the home and have children,” she said today. “They don’t want you to run a hospital — they were angry when I became a manager of the hospital. Some men refused to talk to me. It was very frustrating. I want to stay and continue to prove what women can do.”

Right now, Dr. Ballour is in France, because she says she was told by the Assad regime that she had to leave or she’d be killed. She closed the extremely moving session by saying: “Children need to feel safe. They don’t know the war, but they know blood and destruction. They need someone to support them. I tried to give them comfort and hope.”

Here is Dyekjær full statement:

We were hoping that Feras Fayyad could be here with us today.

As has been widely reported, in December Feras was denied an extended U.S. visa by the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen and has missed several industry events, including the IDA Awards and Cinema Eye Awards.

He has had quite the ordeal these past weeks.

While waiting on the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen to grant him another appointment, Feras received news that his aunt’s house was bombed and his parents’ and childhood home was in the line of fire in Syria.

As the oldest of 10, he feels a great responsibility for his siblings and his parents. So, instead of continuing to wait on the embassy, Feras went to Turkey to be as close to his family as possible and help in any way he could.

The past few weeks for Feras have been filled with a lot of fear. A lot of anger. A lot of anxiety.

He remained in Turkey until two days ago, when we had positive indications the embassy was willing to revisit his case.

Feeling his family is out of immediate danger for now, Feras decided to return to Denmark.

However, things escalated two nights ago when I got a phone call at 12.30 a.m. Feras had been detained on his way into Copenhagen by immigration police.

I rushed to the airport. Feras told me the police used unnecessary force in detaining him. The past month has been a lot for a man who has been imprisoned and tortured in Syria, and whose family is under threat and has siblings spread all over Europe.

Feras was distraught, exhausted and felt discriminated against. The police eventually released him into my care.

After this ordeal and given there was no way to get here by today, Feras is instead spending the weekend with his 5-year-old daughter – who hasn’t seen him in over six weeks.

Our next step is to go back to the embassy early next week and try again for the necessary visa so he can come to the U.S.

National Geographic has been communicating with the U.S. State Department, and we have had an overwhelming show of support from the documentary community and entertainment industry at large, including:

The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences
The Television Academy & The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
The Director’s Guild of America
The International Documentary Association
The Minister for Culture of Denmark
The Danish Film Institute
The association of Danish Film Directors

Feras is a filmmaker, but first and foremost he’s a Syrian. THE CAVE is a very personal film. It is dedicated to his seven sisters. To his daughter. To the unnamed women he witnessed being jailed and tortured in Syrian prisons because they’re women.

His voice is important and it deserves to be heard, now more than ever. After all, we are talking about a brilliant filmmaker who is now a two-time Academy Award nominee — and my dear friend.

Feras — and all of us — thank you all for your continued support.

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