EXCLUSIVE: Feras Fayyad, the Syrian filmmaker who helmed Emmy-winning National Geographic film The Cave, has told Deadline that he would never knowingly cause “worry and sorrow” to a woman after becoming embroiled in an alleged sexual harassment scandal in Denmark.
The Scandinavian country has been gripped by a #MeToo reckoning in recent weeks and Fayyad is among a number of high-profile individuals who have been accused of inappropriate behavior after living and working in Copenhagen, where he made The Cave with influential local production outfit, Danish Documentary Production.
The most prominent allegations against Fayyad have been leveled by former Danish Documentary production assistant Emilia Moth, who went on record in an interview with local newspaper Ekstra Bladet. Moth has accused Fayyad of making inappropriate comments about her and looking at her “ass” in the office. She told Deadline in a statement that she stands by everything that has been reported by Ekstra Bladet.
Fayyad emphatically denies wrongdoing and disputes Moth’s version of events, while his allies have privately attempted to cast doubt over the credibility of Ekstra Bladet’s reporting and are threatening legal action against the newspaper. Danish Documentary founder Sigrid Dyekjær said her company thoroughly investigated the matter and did not find evidence to support Moth’s claims. Dyekjær added that reports in Danish media are “very far from reality.”
Nonetheless, Moth’s words reverberated around the highest ranks of the Danish entertainment business, with around 1,000 industry professionals signing an open letter supporting her “courage” and expressing solidarity “with all those who have experienced abusive behavior.” Signatories include Emmy-winning The Night Manager director Susanne Bier, Game Of Thrones star Pilou Asbæk, and House Of Cards’ Lars Mikkelsen.
Questions have also emerged about Fayyad’s conduct at the EBS International Documentary Festival in Korea in 2017. Fayyad was due to speak about his Oscar-nominated film Last Men In Aleppo, but his appearance was canceled at the last minute after organizers said one of its employees had accused him of sexual harassment. Fayyad denied behaving inappropriately during the trip and said he did not know what he had been accused of.
Fayyad has answered questions in English for the first time in an email Q&A with Deadline as he seeks to clear his name of the #MeToo allegations. The Q&A was conducted through his attorney. “As a victim of sexual violence myself, and as a brother to seven sisters, I am extremely sensitive to any kind of behavior that could be interpreted as offensive,” the director said. “I have never engaged in such behavior myself. It is most unfortunate that in my efforts to tell the heartbreaking story of the destruction of my country, others are intent on attacking my character for political, financial or personal reasons.”
In a statement to Deadline, Moth detailed why she made the decision to speak out about her experiences. “In Denmark, we are currently experiencing a new wave of the #MeToo movement across different lines of industries — not just the film industry. I felt a responsibility to use my voice and speak up in these important times after I was sexually harassed by Feras Fayyad in 2019,” she said.
While the swirling controversy has been picked over by the Danish press, the story has gone unreported in English-language media, despite the success of Fayyad’s films and his rising reputation in Hollywood. The Cave won two Emmys earlier this year in the non-fiction cinematography and documentary filmmaking categories for its depiction of a female doctor wrestling with systemic sexism during Syria’s civil war. The film was also nominated for a European Film Award this month. Fayyad made headlines at the start of the year after he was denied entry to the U.S during Oscar season because of his status as a Syrian refugee. Notable filmmakers rallied to his cause, not least Oscar-winner Alex Gibney.
Fayyad is currently making Mystery Of Epilogue, another film based in Syria, and has secured funding from Sundance. Danish Documentary was involved in the development of this new feature, but Fayyad has moved the project to Germany, where he now lives. Danish Documentary’s Kirstine Barfod remains attached as a producer.
In her interview with Ekstra Bladet, Moth alleged that Fayyad made inappropriate comments to her around the office in 2019. She claims that he looked at her “ass” when she bent down to take something out of the refrigerator. Moth also accused Fayyad of making repeated remarks about her appearance. “I remember a specific incident when he, in the office during work hours, said that he didn’t like that I wore jeans and a T-shirt and that I should wear shorter dresses for his sake. After he commented on my clothes, I told him that he shouldn’t talk to women in the office that way. His response was that I should relax because he was just joking,” she said. Fayyad did not accept Moth’s interpretation of his comments, but his attorney admitted that he complimented Moth on her appearance.
There was also a joke doing the rounds among Danish Documentary employees that Fayyad fantasized about Moth while he masturbated. According to Ekstra Bladet, Moth said Fayyad himself made the comment in front of colleagues at a social gathering in a Copenhagen bar in February 2019. “The joke is that Feras is masturbating while he thinks of me,” Moth told the newspaper in a video interview. But her version of events is strongly disputed by Fayyad, while Danish Documentary’s Dyekjær said the production company did not find evidence to support her claim.
“I do not share or recognize Emilia Moth’s interpretation of what happened that evening in February 2019,” Fayyad told Deadline, adding that the “words she accuses me of did not come out of my mouth.” Meanwhile, other Danish Documentary insiders claim that the masturbation comment was a misinterpreted joke made by another member of The Cave production team on the same day of the social gathering last year.
According to two sources, Fayyad left tissues lying around the editing suite because he was suffering from a cold. A colleague made a joke that the tissues were being used by Fayyad to masturbate over Moth. This joke, according to those familiar with the matter, was recounted by the same employee during the evening drinks that Moth attended. Moth confronted Fayyad about the joke at the social gathering and, per Ekstra Bladet, he responded angrily.
“It was all about a bad joke, and she felt upset about it. I was frustrated afterwards because she accused me of saying that I had sexual fantasies of her, because I did not, and I told her that immediately,” Fayyad explained. Dyekjær said Danish Documentary “took the matter very seriously” and, after Moth raised her concerns, it hired HR consultancy firm Hartmanns to help investigate. Hartmanns’ chief psychologist Louise Dinesen confirmed to Deadline her involvement in the investigation.
A person familiar with the probe said employees who attended the party were interviewed. Danish Documentary concluded that Fayyad did not make the masturbation comment, this person said, but did make other remarks about Moth’s appearance. Danish Documentary’s review also found that Fayyad repeatedly invited a second female employee out for a drink, though the director told Deadline that this was “as a friend, not on a date.” Fayyad helped this second woman secure an internship at Danish Documentary after first meeting her in a coffee bar.
Ultimately, the company decided that the findings were not enough to punish Fayyad, who it employed on a freelance basis. The company is not currently producing any projects with Fayyad, though he and Dyekjær communicated to Deadline through the same attorney. Moth quit in April 2019 and, in her resignation email, she questioned Danish Documentary’s handling of the matter and said she did not feel supported by Dyekjær. Sources close to Moth said she had no direct contact with Hartmanns during its investigation.
“I feel there is an assumption that I have misunderstood the signals, that I have dealt with the problem wrongly, that it was just a question of Feras being a little bit attracted to me and that this problem arose because we as colleagues hang out with each other outside of work,” per a translation of Moth’s resignation email, obtained by Deadline. “Fortunately we are living in a time where women no longer have to put up with this kind of harassment. We no longer have to believe that behaviour that crosses the line is acceptable and is a part of the job and that we can only speak up when it is a question of physical assault.”
Dyekjær told Deadline: “A fair and proper investigation was carried out in which the relevant parties — including employees who had been present during the alleged incident — were consulted in order to clarify what had actually happened and what the possible consequences would be. The conclusion of the investigation was that there was no basis for sanctioning Feras Fayyad. Hartmanns agreed with that conclusion.
“Emilia Moth was not happy with the outcome of the case and subsequently she resigned. We regret this, and we are sad that she felt offended while she was employed by us. Dealing with such unfortunate cases between employees is very complex. As employers, we are committed to taking into account all employees — both those who feel violated and those who are being prosecuted. We have tried to live up to that responsibility and that obligation in the best possible way in this case. The description of the course of events, as it has been presented in the Danish tabloid press, is very far from reality, as we see it.”
Weeks before Moth went public with her story in Ekstra Bladet, Fayyad messaged her out of the blue to offer an apology for his behavior. In an Instagram direct message seen by Deadline, he said: “I’m not good, I feel ashamed, i [sic] take the responsibility for saying any words make you feel uncomfortable, Thank you for being the woman that you’re. I strongly apologize and I just carry for you all the respect.”
Fayyad added: “No excuses for Cultural deferents [sic] no excuses for not knowing the language.. no excuses for anything, no excuses for any man to harm verbally or any way whatever it’s any woman in anyway. I’m a bad person and I’ll try to be better human..and I will learn from this experience for ever.”
The director told Deadline he was apologizing for upsetting Moth, rather than admitting wrongdoing. “I apologized because she felt upset and sad. It was never my intention to harm anybody,” Fayyad said. On reflection, he admitted that cultural and language differences could have been factors in upsetting Moth. Fayyad does not speak English or Danish fluently. He added that “hate speech about refugees around the world” could be a factor in allegations being leveled at him, though sources close to Moth were incredulous about this suggestion.
Meanwhile, Moth’s interview has been praised by industry figures in Denmark, who signed an open letter supporting her decision to speak out. The letter was organized by local filmmaker Olivia Chamby-Rus and it quickly garnered hundreds of signatures from high-profile Danes, including The Act Of Killing producer Signe Byrge Sørensen and actress Trine Dyrholm.
“Emilia’s case is not an isolated one, but an expression of a problem that still affects many industries – not least our own,” the letter said. “We sign this letter to support Emilia’s courage to act as an individual and to show our solidarity with all those who have experienced abusive behavior in our industry. We owe it to you — but to a large extent also to ourselves — to seize this momentum and grow as an industry.”
Another name stood out among the signatories: Peter Albrechtsen, the sound designer on Fayyad’s film, The Cave. Albrechtsen said in an email to Deadline that he signed the letter to support the battle against sexism and, though he did not work in the same office as Fayyad, he “only experienced him being respectful towards women.”
Moth’s allegations are not the first time Fayyad has been accused of wrongdoing. The EBS International Documentary Festival (EIDF) canceled his Last Men In Aleppo Q&A in 2017 after an incident on the day of his arrival in Seoul, South Korea, on August 24.
In an email seen by Deadline, EIDF programmer Eun-Shil Shin told Fayyad’s colleagues that he “committed verbal abuses and sexual harassment to our staff in public spaces.” The EIDF representative added: “The festival office tried to talk with him, but he refused to acknowledge his behavior and didn’t offer an apology. Accordingly, his presence at the EIDF 2017 became a threaten [sic] against the injured party and against all our staffs [sic]. Therefore, we canceled his Q&A session and let him leave Korea.”
The precise nature of the allegations is unclear and the name of the accuser is not known to Fayyad, according to his attorney. But Deadline has seen email correspondence that casts light on Fayyad’s side of the story, as well as regret on the part of EIDF’s organizers that the matter was not fully investigated. The correspondence is between a supporter of Fayyad’s documentary, the filmmaker Joan Churchill, and Michael Renov, vice dean at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Churchill and her husband, Alan Barker, were helping Fayyad with an application to USC when Renov raised concerns about what took place in South Korea. He was president of the EIDF jury in 2017.
In her email, Churchill explained that she and Barker questioned Fayyad about the incident in South Korea on two separate occasions and, each time, his version of events was consistent and did not reflect inappropriate behavior on his part. According to Churchill’s retelling of Fayyad’s account, the charges stem from a meal he had with a female member of the EIDF team soon after his arrival in Seoul. Fayyad, for his part, denied acting inappropriately and told Churchill that the exchanges made him uncomfortable and the only time he touched the woman’s skin was to kiss her on the cheek when they parted ways. After taking a nap, Fayyad was confronted by festival staff who told him that the woman had raised concerns about the encounter. Through a translator, Fayyad explained his side of the story to a senior EIDF programmer. He was told to return to his hotel room and was later asked to leave Korea.
In a reply sent to Churchill last year, Renov revealed that he became aware of the allegations during the festival when the unnamed woman told colleagues that Fayyad had made sexual overtures toward her and she felt threatened. Renov said 2017 was the height of the #MeToo movement and, at the time, no one questioned the allegations that the woman made. He admitted that he did not know exactly what happened between Fayyad and the EIDF employee, and expressed regret that the matter was not properly investigated. Instead, he confessed that the festival rushed to judgment. Renov confirmed the veracity of his email to Deadline.
Reflecting on the incident, Fayyad said: “I don’t know about the case in Korea, because I still don’t know what it is about. Maybe it’s lost in translation? I honestly don’t know. If only someone could tell me what I did, then I could defend myself.” In her email to Renov, Churchill said the events had caused Fayyad mental anguish and likely cost Last Men In Aleppo Oscar votes.
Asked if he feels it is fair that he has been drawn into the #MeToo debate, Fayyad told Deadline: “No. I believe women should be respected and I recently made a film featuring a remarkable female doctor who managed a Syrian hospital under attack while looking after her besieged patients and deflecting the misogyny all around her. I am the son of a strong Kurdish woman who raised me along with my seven sisters who are all struggling for their rights in Syria. Nothing is farther from my character than to cause worry and sorrow among women – it never has and never will be my intention.”
For Moth, going public with her allegations was also about speaking up for others. “My story is not unique and it is not only a story about sexual harassment. It is a story about the power structures within the industry, that still allows sexism, harassment, and bullying to happen,” she said. “These are power structures that both men and women are a part of creating and upholding. My hope is that, with my story, I can help shed a light on these dynamics and hopefully send a message to other men and women experiencing the same thing I did, that they are not alone.”
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