How Syria’s First Oscar Contender Eluded the Government

How Syria’s First Oscar Contender Eluded the Government


But in war-torn Syria, there was no such body, until Mark Johnson, a veteran Hollywood producer and the chairman of the academy committee overseeing the foreign-language Oscar, received an unusual request. A group of exiled Syrians, including an actor, multiple directors and a screenwriter, asked to be recognized as Syria’s first nominating committee.

“Of course, we did some background checking and certainly arrived at the fact that they were legitimate and their credits are what they said they were,” Mr. Johnson said. “And they said, ‘We would like to be the Syrian committee. And we would like to submit ‘Little Gandhi.’”

In a rare move, the academy waived some requirements and deemed the film eligible. “I think it shows the power of art,” Mr. Kadi said.

“Little Gandhi” is not the only Syria-related Oscar hopeful. Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts,” which tracked the relentless efforts of citizen journalists based in the city of Raqqa, is a contender for best documentary, as is Evgeny Afineevsky’s debut, “Cries From Syria.” (Final nominees in both categories will be unveiled in January.)

Mr. Kadi came to the United States in 2000 from Aleppo, where he was a playwright. After turning to filmmaking, he made his feature debut with “The Citizen” (2013), the tale of a newly arrived Lebanese immigrant in New York.

For the documentary, he interviewed close associates of Matar, many of whom had fled to Turkey. To speak to those still in Daraya, Mr. Kadi connected with an activist within Syria who owned a camera but didn’t know how to use it. Since it was too dangerous for Mr. Kadi to go himself, he used Skype to teach the man to operate the camera. When it came time to film, Mr. Kadi was in his cinematographer’s ear by phone, giving instructions.

Then came the challenge of retrieving the recordings without government officials’ noticing. Another activist split the high-definition videos onto many thumb drives, taped them to his body, and smuggled them out of the country.

Sometimes, Mr. Kadi, who now lives in California, couldn’t even reach the activists helping him make the film. “There was every day barrel bombing happening,” he said. “You never knew if these guys are safe or not.”

Five months after the debut of “Little Gandhi,” Daraya fell to government forces. But still, Mr. Kadi said he hoped to screen the film in Syria one day. After all, he said, he had a message for the people of Daraya who had protested peacefully in the wake of the Arab Spring.

“I know some of them really blame themselves for really initiating this movement,” Mr. Kadi said. “They feel a sense of guilt because the country is collapsing. This movie is to remind them you haven’t done anything wrong.”

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