Portland director’s ‘Hunger Ward’ earns Oscar cred; films in theaters?

Streamers: Skye Fitzgerald’s documentary short about the war in Yemen chronicles a struggle to aid children caught in famine.

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Better late than never (although some may differ), the Oscars are upon us. Expectations are that this year’s viewership on Sunday will continue its years-long cratering process, especially considering the lack of big-screen spectacles up for consideration. But for those who see award ceremonies as an opportunity for quality films without eight-figure promotion budgets to get a boost in visibility, this year’s Oscars are a boon. In a non-COVID year, a film like Munari or a performance like Riz Ahmed’s in Sound of Metal may have been overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Tom Hanks’ in Bios. So instead of bemoaning the lack of any Avengers, Transformers, or Jedis in the Best Visual Effects category, let’s appreciate the presence of Disney+’s The One and Only Ivan. (Okay, maybe not the best example.)

One category that regularly raises awareness of otherwise under-the-radar efforts is Best Documentary Short. Of all the films nominated each year, these five have the lowest box office prospects, and they’re not generally seen as auditions or springboards to more lucrative Hollywood work. No, these are almost always labors of love and, even more, of a burning need to capture and tell stories that would otherwise go untold. Among this year’s nominees, all of which meet that criteria, one stands out: Portland-based filmmaker and activist Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward.

Hunger Ward

“I don’t think of myself as an activist in the traditional sense,” Fitzgerald said when I spoke with him last week. And yet, he adds, “Cinema is uniquely positioned to move people, to bring a virtually unseen story to a much broader audience so they will care, so they will marshal resources to engage the problem.”

Hunger Ward chronicles, unblinkingly, the impact of the Saudi-led (and U.S.-supported) war against Yemen, which has resulted in what’s frequently called the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. The film follows two women who heroically strive to treat young children and babies who are victims of the famine caused by this conflict. It bears witness to hell.

Fitzgerald has been Oscar-nominated once before, for his 2019 documentary short Lifeboat, so the prospect of his films (if not, in this year’s remote ceremony, him personally) rubbing elbows with Tinseltown’s elite isn’t new. The incongruity of his Herculean (if not Sisyphean) efforts being celebrated alongside, say, Green Book, is not lost on him. “Is it strange to get into a tuxedo and receive an award for a film about childhood famine in Yemen? Yes,” he says. “But I take a practical approach towards any way I can get the message out and I take that opportunity to communicate.”

Even for a filmmaker like Fitzgerald, who has put himself in harm’s way making films about unexploded land mines in Cambodia, doctors in the Syrian civil war, and Libyan refugees crossing the Mediterranean, Hunger Ward presented special challenges. Journalists and Westerners are largely banned from the war zones, and, says Fitzgerald, “it took us eight-and-a-half months to get our visas. I found out later that it took [New York Times columnist and fellow Oregonian] Nicholas Kristof two years. So we felt pretty good about that.”

Once acquired, the visas allowed for only a two-person crew, Fitzgerald and a cameraperson, and were good for only 30 days. Accompanied by a government minder, the team visited a refugee camp in the northern part of Yemen and a hospital in the nation’s south.  In that time, they captured images that will be seared in viewers’ brains for quite some time—images of unimaginable suffering and desperation as well as images of quiet, fierce perseverance in the face of everything.

The latter are, of course, crucial, both for a film and a life. Despite what he’s witnessed, “Hope is what gets me up in the morning,” says Fitzgerald. “The hopeful acts [the doctor and nurse in the film] do on a daily basis is what motivates me to get this film out as widely as I can.” The problem “may seem intractable, but it can be resolved to a great extent by U.S. government action. Because our government is supporting the Saudi coalition in concrete ways, if U.S. support is removed unilaterally, the Saudis will withdraw and stop their bombing of the country. People can engage directly after watching it and take action that can affect the clinics depicted.” In other words, Fitzgerald has done his job. Now it’s up to us.

(“Hunger Ward” is streaming on Paramount+ and Pluto TV, and is available as part of the Oscar Nominated Best Documentary Shorts program playing in the virtual cinemas of Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre and in-person at the Living Room Theaters.)

ALSO PLAYING:

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For the first time in forever, we now report on some films playing in actual theaters that, if you are so inclined, you can buy a ticket and see along with strangers. (In addition, Cinema 21 continues to offer private rentals.)

[NOTE: On April 28, Cinema 21 announced that, due to new COVID safety restrictions taking effect on Friday, April 30, it was impractical to remain open. The theater has suspended all in-theater ticket sales until May 20 at the earliest. Titles available through Cinema 21’s virtual theater remain available.]

Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill in Test Pattern

Test Pattern: Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) works in nonprofit fundraising. Evan (Will Brill) is a tattoo artist. They meet cute and quickly fall hard for each other. Then, to celebrate her first day at a new job, she goes out for a drink with a girlfriend, gets slipped something by a guy she meets, and wakes up in his bed. But that’s only the beginning of her nightmare. This well-acted, subtly angry indie drama shot in Texas follows the couple on the day after the presumed sexual assault, as they visit one medical facility after another in search of a rape kit. The journey becomes increasingly Kafkaesque, and over the course of a few hours, the strain causes cracks in their previously idyllic relationship. Writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s debut feature packs insight into the ways that dynamics of both gender and race always remain hidden beneath the surface. (Opens Friday, April 23 at the Living Room Theaters)

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street: Between the boom in tribute to Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood, and the recent encomiums for Big Bird and his turf, we’re in a golden age of Gen-X childhood TV nostalgia documentaries. This straightforward, but inevitably engaging, example focuses on the behind-the-scenes forces who revolutionized television by combining science-based educational practices with commercial-based strategies and by consciously gearing the show towards inner-city, minority preschoolers. Jim Henson gets his due, but a more welcome spotlight shines on Joan Ganz Cooney, the first executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop, and on Jon Stone, Sesame Street’s longtime director. I found the earlier passages detailing the show’s creation more compelling than the retelling of later, more familiar incidents from its history—although, it must be said, the scene where Mr. Hooper’s death must be explained to Big Bird loses none of its power on repeated viewings. (Opens Friday, April 23, at Cinema 21).

The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters: What I knew about truffles before watching this movie: They’re some sort of fungus that grows underground, considered a culinary delicacy. People, stereotypically rural European men who follow the old ways, use dogs and pigs to suss out their location using smell. They are not used in the creation of truffle oil, which gets its flavor from a synthetic compound. What I know about truffles after watching this movie: Pretty much the same thing. That’s a long way of saying that The Truffle Hunters is, as its title implies, about the crusty northern Italians (and their who’s-a-good-dogs) who know the secret spots more than it’s about the goodies themselves. In addition, it’s not out to teach anyone anything, but to transport them to a seemingly timeless subculture and expose them to its sights and sounds. In that sense, it succeeds, but it left this left-brained rationalist wanting to know a little more about what it was seeing. (Opens Friday, April 23, at Cinema 21)

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