BREAKING: Documentary Scored by Ambrose Composer Earns 2021 Oscar Nomination
BREAKING NEWS: St. Ambrose University music professor Bill Campbell awoke to some great news Monday morning. The 2020 documentary for which he wrote music, “Hunger Ward,” is among five 93rd-annual Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary, Short Subject.
Campbell was among the film crew that attended the 91st-annual Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, in February 2019, when the second film in the refugee trilogy, “Lifeboat” (2018), was nominated in the same category.
“The movies that are nominated for the Documentary Short are really — all of them – absolutely amazing films,” he said Monday morning. “So to have the film that I’m part of be on that list is really an honor.”
Last month, the 40-minute “Hunger Ward” (about the humanitarian crisis in the Middle Eastern country of Yemen) was named to the Oscar shortlist in the category — 10 films, out of 114 that qualified. Of the final five nominees, the films are varied, Campbell said.
Besides “Hunger Ward” (directed by Skye Fitzgerald and produced by Michael Scheuerman), they are:
- “Colette” by Anthony Giacchino and Alice Doyard
- “A Concerto is a Conversation” by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers
- “Do Not Split” by Anders Hammer and Charlotte Cook
- “A Love Song For Latasha” by Sophia Nahli Allison and Janice Duncan
“There are stories that tell a personal view, really interpersonal relationships. There are stories that tell of international struggle and are quietly demanding for justice,” Campbell said of the other short films.
“There’s stories about, just about everything in there. It’s really, really quite amazing and some new ways of doing things, too. So there’s some filmmakers that are kind of taking different approaches to things, and that’s really cool.”
He watched several of the nominees at the online New York City documentary film festival in November, in which “Hunger Ward” was shown. It was part of DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, and its influential 15-film Short List.
He said Monday he has no idea if “Hunger Ward” will win on Oscar (at its ceremony April 25), and nobody ever can truly predict winners each time. “That’s part of the beauty of it. It’s also part of the strange energy,” Campbell said of the Oscars. “A few years ago, when we were out for the Academy Awards, it was quite amazing to feel the energy changed throughout the night. “At the very beginning, everybody was a winner. And then at the end, you know, it really whittled down to not everybody was the actual winter, but at the same time, everybody still felt really proud of the work that they did. And they were there. “As they say, you know, being nominated is a really big deal,” he said.
Campbell said nominations like this can lead to more work, which is what happened with the 2019 Oscar nomination.
“They’ll watch the film, they’ll listen to the score, and they’ll say, Oh, who did the score and they’ll end up contacting me,” he said. “That
happened last go round with ‘Lifeboat,’ and it was wonderful.”
Campbell was contacted by Moline-based Fourth Wall Films to do the score for 2019’s “Sons and Daughters of Thunder,” and a New York director who did an online public-service announcement for the American Civil Liberties Union. Kelly Rundle – director of the 19th-century docudrama “Thunder” — saw “Lifeboat” online and he moderated a 2019 discussion when they showed it at St. Ambrose.
“It’s really atmospheric, totally different of film score than he did for ‘Thunder,’” he said Monday.
“He had never done a historical film before we talked about what we wanted,” Rundle said (“Thunder” is about 1834 debates about the abolition of slavery). He and his producing partner (and wife) Tammy Rundle had pre-selected some music to give Campbell an idea of the mood they were looking for.
“He came up with the theme, that was the first thing,” Kelly said, noting Tammy is in charge of all their film music. “It’s very similar to what it ended up being in the film.
“The music Bill wrote did such wonderful job of tying the rest of the elements of the film together,” he said. “When he sent the music over, the piece he did for the end credits, was a combination of the themes for the film. I told him I wept when I heard it; the project had been so difficult. That was such a beautiful finishing touch.”
Rundle moderated the SAU “Lifeboat” Q&A on March 1, 2019 at Galvin Fine Arts Center, a week after the Feb. 24, 2019 Oscar ceremony, with Campbell and director Skye Fitzgerald.
“What most filmmakers hope is that the music is supporting the visual material,” Rundle said Monday. “I personally enjoy music that pushes the limit in a way, I love Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock’s films. They’re very aggressive. Sometimes that backfires. Bill’s music for ‘Thunder’ does a wonderful job of supporting the message of the film.”
“There’s nothing quite like being able to work with a composer on a film score,” Kelly said, noting Campbell’s “Thunder” score also was nominated for a 2020 Mid-America Emmy Award. “That’s what we’d like to do every time.”
Oscars to help raise awareness
The Oscar nomination for “Hunger Ward” will help raise much-needed awareness to the Yemeni humanitarian crisis, Campbell said.
“Let’s not forget that this movie is about people that are in danger of, well, they’re in a famine. It’s not that it’s gonna happen,” he said. “I mean, the media keep saying that this is going to be — it’s not going to be. It is the worst thing. And there’s a bunch of people out there who would love to donate, but there’s actually a blockade. You cannot get aid in very easily right now at all.
“And so the reason for this film was to show the plight of these people, but also to, unfortunately to show the complicity of the United States government,” Campbell said. “At the end of the last administration, they sold a lot of arms and made this huge deal with the Saudis, which just increased, unfortunately, the terrible plight of
the people. Thankfully, the new administration has lightened those up a bit. But there’s still so much more to do.”
Fitzgerald filmed his documentary at two medical clinics that treat malnourished children — one in South Yemen, a part of the country controlled by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, and one in North Yemen, an area controlled by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
President Biden has called for an end to the civil war in Yemen and announced his administration would no longer support Saudi Arabia’s military operations in the country. Biden’s predecessor, President Trump, was criticized for continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite its bombing campaign in Yemen and the naval blockade it imposed that has disrupted emergency food distribution.
According to a report issued Feb. 12 by several U.N. agencies, more than two million children in
Yemen under the age of five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year. Of those, 400,000 young children could die from starvation, the report said.
With about 24 million of Yemen’s 30 million people in need of some form of assistance, the U.N. calls Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to Human Rights Watch.
Cholera and other disease outbreaks are common, malnutrition is widespread, water is scarce, and the healthcare system is crumbling, with only half of the country’s 5,000 or so health facilities fully operational and with massive medical supply and staff shortages. In August 2020, the U.N. warned the country was again on the brink of full-scale famine.
Beyond any awards, the “Hunger Ward” creators want to help people affected by this crisis. “Maybe with this being nominated, maybe now this will help, and it already has done that to a certain extent,” Campbell said. “Maybe this will help more. That’s the biggest hope. Then the next step is, now that this trilogy is done, what are we gonna do now? That’s still in the conversation stage.” The ACLU project he did music for was a small film to raise awareness for families south of the border who were separated in the last administration. The PSA was to raise money for legal fees for the affected families, Campbell said.