There were half a dozen roadblocks that could have kept “Hunger Ward” from being filmed, according to producer Michael Scheuerman.
Getting visas so the film crew could travel to Yemen to make the documentary took six months. Hours before that journey was to begin in January 2020, Iranian military officer Qasem Soleimani was killed by U.S. forces, raising fears that the situation abroad may preclude the documentary crew from doing its work.
The filmmakers, including University of Iowa graduate Scheuerman, prevailed, bringing “Hunger Ward” to the screen. The film directed by Skye Fitzgerald is now one of the five movies up for Best Documentary Short Subject at the April 25 Academy Awards.
The film documents what the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund refers to as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.” In Yemen, where civil war has been raging for six years, “more than 24 million people – some 80 percent of the population — (are) in need of humanitarian assistance,” the U.N. said.
The 40-minute film follows health-care workers and children in therapeutic feeding centers in Yemen, illustrating some of the day-to-day struggles experienced over the course of the month Fitzgerald filmed in the country.
In the United States, Scheuerman is happy to see his movie being used to raise awareness of the situation in Yemen.
That’s because the U.S. has lent support to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, despite early promises to end involvement.
Backed by Western allies, the Saudis have engaged in myriad airstrikes as well as an ongoing blockade that prevents aid from reaching Yemeni civilians.
“Hunger Ward” is an important reminder of what’s at stake in an African nation that is not often in the headlines, according to a Michigan State professor who has been using the film to spread awareness.
“Having this footage … it highlights the responsibility of U.S. citizens toward this,” said Shireen Al-Adeimi, who was born in Yemen and teaches in Michigan State’s College of Education. “This isn’t starvation or drought. This is man-made. (It’s the) worst humanitarian crisis on earth.”
Meanwhile, at the U.S. Capitol Iman Saleh of Detroit is leading a hunger strike while serving as general coordinator of the Yemeni Liberation Movement. Now more than two weeks into her strike, Saleh and her sister are part of ongoing pressure to get the administration of President Joe Biden to end the blockade.
“I’ve been educating and telling people that this is absolutely not a peaceful form of protesting,” Saleh said. “For anyone to be backed into a corner, For anyone to be able to dry up their options and use hunger striking as a last resort is an extreme violation of the body — and therefore hunger striking is extremely violent.
“The Biden administration could end this blockade right now. He could make a phone call and it could end.”
Scheuerman’s hope is that the movie he’s spent the past two years of his life making can help draw attention to voices like Saleh and Al-Adeimi. With Oscar buzz comes the ability to speak with outlets like PBS, CNN and NPR, where the filmmakers will be promoting the film and discussing the conflict at its heart over the coming weeks.
It was in 2018 that Scheuerman retired from his job in information technology to go into filmmaking, which had been a 30-year fascination for him. As a producer for the film, Scheuerman has worked to shepherd the project, doing everything from figuring out financing and social media presence to lining up hostage negotiators in the event that the “Hunger Ward” film crew was endangered while in Yemen.
The result is something more weighty than he could have imagined in 1988, when he was just a UI grad with a passing interest in the film industry.
“It means everything to me that our Yemeni partners have embraced the film and used it to their work,” he said. “Working in tech doesn’t even compare .”
And the work continues, not only for Scheuerman who has an award show to attend and forthcoming media appearances, but for people like Saleh and Al-Adeimi.
On April 6, a variety of organizations and individuals signed a letter to Biden calling for an end to the Yemen blockade.
“This moral imperative requires the United States to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift this blockade immediately, unilaterally and comprehensively,” the letter implores. “Terminate any U.S. political, military, operational or diplomatic support for the blockade that may exist in order for food, fuel and medicine to reach millions of Yemenis in desperate need.”