I’ll be straight up: Hunger Ward was an extremely difficult watch. That’s what makes it all the more essential viewing.
Hunger Ward examines the effects that Yemen’s ongoing civil war is having on its most vulnerable population: children. The short but nevertheless impactful documentary provides an inside look into two pediatric feeding centers through the eyes of two female healthcare workers.
In 2018, the U.N. warned that 13 million people are facing starvation, and went on to state that it could be “the worst famine in 100 years.” The situation has only worsened since then. “Day after day, famine is increasing,” laments Dr. Aida Hussein Alsadeeq. The doctor is featured prominently in the documentary; she works at Sadaqa Hospital in the city of Aden, where more than half of the most severe cases of child starvation in South Yemen are treated.
The camera lens doesn’t flinch away from the haunting eyes of emaciated children or the desperate wails of grief-stricken mothers and grandmothers, but it’s hard for the viewer not to. This is pain on the most human level. During treatment, medical workers attempt to coax smiles out of the children, but the children are sapped of energy. Witnessing this despondence from kids who are supposed to be full of life and joy is heart-wrenching.
Once the film’s Oscar-nominated director Skye Fitzgerald was able to clear the many bureaucratic hoops to film, it took hardly any time at all before he became a firsthand witness to the severity of the malnutrition. “We’d literally been filming two hours, and the first child passed away in front of us,” he tells Deadline’s Matthew Carey.
For me, watching this film was an exercise in acknowledging the things we subconsciously ignore until they’re right in front of our faces. On a recent episode of NPR’s science podcast Short Wave, I was introduced to the term “psychic numbing.” The psychological phenomenon is a feeling of indifference to the suffering of large numbers of people. Without an emotional connection, it then becomes difficult to be spurred to action. The devastation is at such a large scale that it seems like there’s nothing we can do, so we become detached.
With the multitude of atrocities happening around the world, it can become easy to turn a blind eye. Hunger Ward demands your attention by attaching faces and stories to horrific statistics. “Imagine: if it was your brother, or your father, or your mother, or your sister, or the person closest to you. Would you be silent about this crime?” one bombing victim beseeches. And yet we Americans are largely ignorant and silent regarding this conflict, one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history. Fitzgerald invites us to do something about our silence, our complicity.
The bulk of the devastation in Yemen is a result of missile strikes perpetrated by Saudi Arabia that were backed and funded by the U.S., another instance of our needless meddling in the Middle East. Fitzgerald told Deadline: “What we’re asking for, as not only a film team, but as a political movement, is an executive order from the Biden administration… to stop all support of the Saudi-led coalition, especially operations support and selling of arms, and if that happened, I think eventually the conflict would resolve itself once Saudi Arabia stopped receiving so much support from the West.”
Less than a month later, the conflict saw some long-awaited positive movement. In President Biden’s first major foreign policy speech on February 4th, he announced that the U.S. would end support for the Saudi-led military campaign. While this move hopefully marks a return to peace talks and the delivery of aid, Hunger Ward delivers a damning indictment of our indifference to war and prioritization of profits over people.
Here’s how you can stream Hunger Ward as part of the Portland International Film Festival.