Oscar 2017: Syrian Cinematographer Barred from US by Travel Ban
Cinematographer Khaled Khateeb earned his first major credit on the Netflix documentary short The White Helmets. Now, the film is nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject at the Academy Awards. The 21-year-old Khateeb risked his life for the film to document the deadly Syrian Civil War and the work of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets. The group is credited with saving over 60,000 civilians from destroyed buildings [and received a nobel peace prize last year for their selfless services]. George Clooney and Smokehouse Pictures are seeking to adapt the White Helmets’ story into a feature film.
Khateeb was recently issued a work visa so he could travel to the United States to attend the Academy Awards with The White Helmets director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara. But now, as a result of President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries, the cinematographer likely will not be able to attend Sunday’s ceremony.
According to the Associated Press (via Variety), U.S. immigration officials are barring Khateeb from entry into the United States. Internal correspondence from the Trump administration indicated that the Department of Homeland Security “decided at the last minute” to block Khateeb from traveling to Los Angeles from Istanbul via Turkish Airlines after they found what is described as “derogatory information” related to the White Helmets cinematographer.
The AP report says that “derogatory information” can range from “terror connections to passport irregularities.” Turkish authorities reportedly detained Khateeb, who now needs a “passport waiver from the United States” to be granted entry. Khateeb is not the first person to be denied entry into the U.S. because of the Trump administration’s change in policy; a sweeping travel ban had also affected Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars for The Salesman. Farhadi, however, decided he would not attend the ceremony even if he were granted an exception. President Trump’s immigration ban was stricken down by federal judges as “unconstitutional,” but a number of individuals from the affected countries are still having difficulty securing entry to the U.S.
The White Helmets has a real chance of winning at the Academy Awards; it has already won the Audience Award for Best Short Film at the Hamptons International Film Festival and the IDA Award for Best Short from the International Documentary Association. If the film wins, the award would go to von Einsiedel and Natasegara. But the work of Khateeb, fellow cinematographers Fadi Al Halabi and Hassan Kattan, and director of photography Franklin Dow was a major component of The White Helmets’ success in telling such a harrowing real-life story. If von Einsiedel and Natasegara make it to the podium, there’s a chance that they will pay special tribute to Khateeb’s work in his absence.
Considering today’s tense political climate in the U.S., the Academy Awards is sure to include political statements against the Trump administration by some of the winners. It is bound to be polarizing for viewers and elicit strong reactions from both sides of the aisle. But no matter where you lie on the political spectrum, there’s no denying the major impact that the travel ban is having on visitors to the U.S. It’s unfortunate that the 21-year-old Khateeb won’t be able to attend what could be a triumphant night for the makers of The White Helmets. But the unintended consequences of Trump’s travel ban certainly won’t take away from the powerful story that the film tells, especially if it wins.