When her journalist son goes missing in Syria, working-class ER nurse Helen has to figure out how to help him with limited resources

By Christian Holub
September 10, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT

In the absence of direct American military involvement in the Syrian Civil War, the closest many Americans come to feeling a real stake in that conflict is when journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff are killed by terrorists. So for her new film Viper Club, premiering at Toronto International Film Festival this week, director Maryam Keshavarz (Circumstance) decided to examine several related issues through the eyes of Helen (Susan Sarandon), an ER nurse who tries to gather support for her journalist son (Julian Morris) after he goes missing in Syria.

“People are getting desensitized by the 24-hour news cycle, and I felt like people should be more outraged about what’s happening to these journalists and aid workers,” Keshavarz tells EW. “That was the first step, to really ground it in the perspective of this family. I’ve worked in Iran and Lebanon, I’ve shot films there, I’ve been in insane danger, and I’ve always thought, ‘if I got into trouble, how would my family negotiate all this?’”

In Viper Club, Sarandon’s Helen has several challenges to overcome. Unlike European governments, the United States refuses to negotiate with terrorists in any form, so official channels are closed to her. Through Sam (Matt Bomer), Helen learns of an informal network of international journalists, Middle Eastern operatives, and interested rich people who might be able to help her save her son — not unlike the kind detailed in Lawrence Wright’s 2015 New Yorker article about media executive David Bradley’s attempts to help the families of ISIS hostages save their loved ones.

The problem in the film is that Helen’s network requires her to raise $20 million in ransom money in order to free her son. That’s no easy task for a working-class single mother with a demanding job in the emergency room.

“More than anything, it’s looking at how class and access to information might actually influence the outcome of such a story,” Keshavarz says. “We situated the character in the ER because we thought it was very emblematic of what’s going on in the United States, where so many people don’t have health care. Literally, who lives and who dies depends on your access to services. This is a way to talk about all those themes through the life of one fictional character who’s struggling.”

Viper Club will premiere at TIFF this week and is set to hit theaters on Oct. 26, but it will also be added to YouTube’s Premium channel next year. Keshavarz says YouTube wasn’t originally part of the film’s development, but when when they entered the production process, their presence actually tied in with some of the themes of the film.

“I thought it was a really interesting partnership, because YouTube and all these different platforms have changed journalism forever — they’ve changed how we tell stories, and who tells them,” Keshavarz says. “Before the civil war broke out in Syria, there was all this extreme excitement at the beginning of the Arab Spring. All these new media platforms were being used initially as part of that, and then later they were used to show atrocities. A lot of local journalists were killed trying to cover things that way, and then when those international journalists were killed, it was broadcast on YouTube. It’s a fascinating medium, it’s been such a player in the change in journalism and storytelling, so I thought it’d be a great partner.”

Watch the exclusive trailer for Viper Club above.