Photo of a lifeboat crowded with refugees off the coast of Libya from the movie Lifeboat (2019)
Movies That Move You
By Sharleen Nelson

From UO theater to Hollywood, from teaching to creating award-winning documentary films, it wasn’t a straight path for Skye Fitzgerald

Six years in the making, three powerful films by University of Oregon theater arts alumnus and award-winning documentary filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald raise awareness and shine stark light on the plight of their subjects. He calls the projects his “humanitarian trilogy.”

50 Feet from Syria (2015) focuses on the struggles of a Syrian American surgeon who operated on victims of the Syrian civil war. Lifeboat, a 2019 Academy Award nominee, follows search-and-rescue operations off the coast of Libya for refugees fleeing the dangers of their country aboard substandard boats on treacherous seas. Hunger Ward, nominated for an Oscar in 2021, documents the impact of war and famine on children, families, and health care workers in two therapeutic feeding centers in Yemen.

Oscar-nominated Hunger Ward documents the impact of war and famine on children, families, and health care workers in two Yemen facilities  Photo credit: ©2020 Spin Film
Oscar-nominated Hunger Ward documents the impact of war and famine on children, families, and health care workers in two Yemen facilities
Photo credit: ©2020 Spin Film

Can storytelling change the world? Fitzgerald believes it can. But making the film, he says, is only the beginning.

“It’s what I call the long tail of documentary film, which means that just because you’ve done the film doesn’t mean the process is over,” he says. “When a film goes into distribution it’s absolutely vital to do the work that comes later, what comes next as we begin to leverage the film in ways that will cause people to take action.”

After a group of Canadians saw 50 Feet from Syria, they formed a nonprofit program to receive Syrian refugees. A doctor who saw the film at the Mountainfilm film festival in Telluride, Colorado, was inspired to volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society.

In making Hunger Ward, Fitzgerald, MFA ’97 (theater arts), intended to raise a few thousand dollars to support the Yemeni physician and nurse in the film. “We raised over $240,000 dollars,” he says, “which goes directly to the clinic and the families and children who need it most.”

In October, the film was screened in the Netherlands at an event at the Peace Palace in The Hague to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which has resulted in a ripple effect within the legal community over accountability and the criminal use of hunger as a weapon of war. “You have to take the long view on these things,” Fitzgerald says. “Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen.”

Fitzgerald’s compassion for humanity took root during childhood. Growing up outside Monument, Oregon, without running water, electricity, or access to television or movies, he developed a keen appreciation for the fundamental things in life.

Fitzgerald’s Lifeboat, a 2019 Oscar Academy Award nominee, followed harrowing search-and-rescue operations off the coast of Libya as refugees fled their country
Fitzgerald’s Lifeboat, a 2019 Oscar Academy Award nominee, followed harrowing search-and-rescue operations off the coast of Libya as refugees fled their country

“I’m fortunate to have been born in a country where I could go to public high school for free,” Fitzgerald says. “I could go to college and then on to graduate school and have access to all this opportunity that maybe someone in Yemen doesn’t have access to.”

After earning his undergraduate degree in theater arts at Eastern Oregon University, Fitzgerald enrolled in the UO theater arts graduate program.

The late 1990s was a banner year for the theater department, which churned out a talented cohort that included Kaitlin Olson, BS ’97 (theater arts), who went on to star in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a hit comedy sitcom about a gang of five misfit friends; successful actor-producer Eoin O’Shea, class of 1998; and Megan Smith, a 1999 music alumna and half of the folk/roots/country music duo Misner & Smith. Fitzgerald directed Olson and O’Shea in Black Comedy, a one-act farce by English playwright Peter Shaffer first performed in 1965.

I had the best cast ever,” Fitzgerald says. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had directing actors. It was such a blast. We were just bent over laughing every day.”

Fitzgerald also directed the William Nicholson drama Shadowlands, casting Robert Barton—then head of the UO acting program–in the lead role as author C. S. Lewis.

“It was a wonderful experience to direct a professor as well as being a student at the same time,” Fitzgerald says.

At the 2021 Academy Award ceremony, Fitzgerald ran into Michael Govier, BS ’00 (theater arts), who won the Oscar for his animated short film, If Anything Happens I Love You. As it turns out, Govier was also part of the Shadowlands crew. “Michael was one of the stagehands who actually turned the roundtable”—a turntable that rotates the stage—“and did the scene changes,” Fitzgerald says. “We had a great conversation about our time in Eugene.”

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Skye Fitzgerald on the red carpet in 2019
“Most vital to me as a filmmaker is when I see something that I’ve done has influenced the real world.”
Skye Fitzgerald

Shadowlands was the last theater production Fitzgerald directed. While flipping through a course catalog, he found an elective class that would change everything. “I took a television directing class and I just fell in love with it,” he says. “I wanted to do that more than I wanted to do theater.”

Fitzgerald faced graduation in 1997 without job prospects, but fate intervened when a crew came to Eugene to film Ricochet River, Kate Hudson’s debut feature film about three teenagers in the 1960s plotting escape from their small town. Fitzgerald seized the opportunity to shadow the camera team. “I was right there watching what the cinematographer was doing every day,” he says, “and learning from it.”

Fitzgerald was hired as a production assistant and following a chance meeting with director Deborah Del Prete and a conversation about their shared theater background, he was given the surprising opportunity to help direct a second unit of stunt extras—the crew apart from that which includes the principal actors for the main shots.

“She handed me a napkin with a shot list, literally a napkin with scribbles,” Fitzgerald says. When the film was completed, he was credited as a second unit director.

After several years, Fitzgerald left the film industry to teach high school in Gervais, Oregon, before deciding that documentary filmmaking was his true calling. In 2005, he started Spin Film, a broadcasting and media production company in Portland focused on global human rights and social justice issues.

“I am by nature a storyteller and it’s my passion and it’s how I’m built,” Fitzgerald says. “I can’t do anything else, or don’t want to. And most vital to me as a filmmaker is when I see something that I’ve done has influenced the real world.”

Fitzgerald’s next project, a short film scheduled to begin filming in Montana this summer, will place the viewer in the center of a hate crime from different points of view. He calls it a “cinematic intervention.”

“It’s going to force us to examine our stereotypes about hate crimes in the US and our own cultural complacency in allowing them to happen,” he adds, “so that we bear witness to it and cannot look away.”

Sharleen Nelson, BS ’06 (magazine), is a staff writer for University Communications.
Images courtesy of Skye Fitzgerald.