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IOWA CITY — As a 12-year-old kid in small-town Minnesota, Michael Scheuerman remembers watching a Holocaust mini-series starring Meryl Streep and feeling his eyes open.
“I’d never heard of genocide when I was 11 or 12 years old,” said Scheuerman, now 54, of Bend, Ore. “That movie. I've just never been the same.”
As a University of Iowa student from 1984 to 1988, the power of story continued its resonance for the business major, thanks to religious studies professor Jay Holstein and his gift for inspiring student thought and inquiry using popular novels and movies — among other things.
“It opened my eyes,” Scheuerman said of Holstein’s teaching. “Just questioning human existence and how we treat each other on this planet was a constant theme that I came away with.”
During and after his time at the UI, Scheuerman pursued both education and work abroad — studying at the University of Copenhagen; traveling to Morocco, the Soviet Union, Latvia, Sweden, France, Spain; and later teaching English in the Dominican Republic.
Those experiences — peppered with moving cinematic encounters, like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and “Platoon” and the biographical films “Gandhi” and “Romero” — prepared Scheuerman for his entree decades later into filmmaking via this year’s heart-wrenching documentary, “Hunger Ward.”
His 40-minute film debut beside award-winning filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald offers a rare glimpse into Yemen’s civil war and its ever-worsening famine that has left half its 13.5 million people struggling to eat and 3.6 million in a food-shortage emergency. The film is among five short-subject documentaries nominated for Oscars at this year’s 93rd Academy Awards — adding to the UI’s growing list of Oscar-nominated alumni, and possibly expanding its winners list.
But Scheuerman’s enthusiasm over the honor lies in its capacity to focus attention on what he refers to as “the forgotten war” and what has been described as “the world’s worst famine in 100 years,” according to news clips that narrate the film’s opening aerial scene slowly descending into one of Yemen’s main, yet depleted hospitals.
The movie follows two children seeking aid at overwhelmed hospitals. One is a 10-year-old girl weighing 24 pounds. Another is a 6-year-old weighing 15.
“Show me how you play,” a woman in the documentary encourages one of the girls, who’d rather not. “Smile. Just once. Just once.”
‘Worth a story’
After leaving Iowa in the 1980s, Scheuerman actually got his first taste of the movie industry in the Dominican Republic, where he describes stumbling onto the set of director Sydney Pollack’s “Havana” and being asked to play Robert Redford’s stand-in.
“I was the same hair color,” Scheuerman said. “I was like half an inch shorter than him, so they put risers in my shoes. I wore his clothes. He would come in and do his rehearsal, I'd watch what he’d do, and then I would do all his motions.”
Although they wanted Scheuerman to be a stand in for the whole movie, he turned them down — given his teaching obligations.
“I always regretted it,” he said. “Because it was such an opportunity, and I didn't even know it.”
A lover of history, Scheuerman back in the United States pursued a master’s degree at the University of Colorado-Boulder — ending up in an information technology job, as that’s where the opportunities were. Back in Minnesota with his wife and two kids, Scheuerman ran his own IT company for years and more recently worked for Facebook on the West Coast.
Nearly three years ago, after stepping back from IT to start his next chapter in life, Scheuerman went to the BendFilm Festival where he connected with like minds. Having realized he’d been developing movie-producing skills for 25 years, Scheuerman — fueled by his lifelong love of cinema and belief in the power of story — offered to partner with Fitzgerald on his next film.
“And so we started working together,” he said. “And here I am. We've been working almost two years straight on this thing.”
Yemen seemed in the most dire need of their lens’ focus — given under-coverage of the war, incited years ago with a bombing campaign led by a coalition of Arab countries and backed by the United States. The New York Times and other media have reported coalition airstrikes — often using American munitions — have left in their wake thousands of dead civilians.
When Congress in 2019 voted to end U.S. support for the campaign, then-President Donald Trump vetoed it, according to the Times. President Joe Biden has halted some arms sales, but advocates want him to do more — and Scheuerman has joined a cast of celebrities and human rights groups calling for immediate pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its blockade of food and other aid to the country.
“We urge you now to use U.S. leverage with the Saudi regime to demand an immediate and unconditional end to its blockade on Yemen, which threatens the lives of 16 million malnourished Yemenis living on the edge of famine,” according to the advocates’ letter to Biden.
“I've always been interested in film as a tool for social change,” Scheuerman said.
And now he’s using it.
While Fitzgerald and a photography director were the ones on the ground shooting in Yemen last year — even with pandemic — Scheuerman spent long hours navigating complex security and diplomatic communications from Oregon.
“If we don't do something, 15 million people are food insecure, 5 million face famine right now, this year,” he said. “And it's human caused. It's not because of drought or environmental crisis.
“That to us was worth a story and worth the time and worth two years of our commitment, working around the clock to get the story out to the world.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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