Amid bombs going off, Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab recorded her life in the most difficult of circumstances. That footage, with nods in four categories, has now become the most-nominated documentary in BAFTA history. Here, al-Kateab tells Stylist about For Sama, the film everyone needs to watch.
Waad al-Kateab has the most precious occasions of her 20s saved on video. There’s her wedding, in a borrowed dress, to the local doctor, Hamza. There’s the footage of her practising her ‘I’m pregnant’ announcement in a mirror.
And there’s a clip of her and Hamza singing a nursery rhyme to their baby girl Sama, strapped to her father’s chest. The family hurries along a narrow path in the dark, singing a sweet verse about little chicks. Suddenly, an explosion fills the air. Sama cries. Her parents sing softly but louder, to drown out the sound of the falling bombs. “Almost there, Sama,” her mother says, “Almost there, love.”
For five years, Syrian student al-Kateab lived and worked in the most harrowing circumstances. She fell in love, married and had a child in Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War as thousands were killed and thousands more decided to flee one of the most dangerous places in the world.
But al-Kateab and her family stayed. And she filmed all of it: the personal, the domestic and the devastating. Now she has turned the footage into a documentary that recounts her incredibly harrowing experience of war from a deeply personal perspective.
Addressed directly to her daughter, For Sama explains why she and Hamza chose to compromise their child’s safety in the pursuit of peace. It’s a film about fighting for what you believe in, even when that comes at great personal risk. But it’s also about ordinary life in a conflict zone, where jokes are cracked, friends are vital and nappies still need to be changed. “My feeling is that this film is for Sama – and for the whole world – to understand,” says al-Kateab, 26, when we meet in London in September. Warm and undaunted, she tells me, “It’s my personal story. Because of this, I could have been dead.”
Al-Kateab did not expect life to turn out like this. She was studying economics in Aleppo in 2011 when protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began. She initially recorded what she saw on her camera phone, then a video camera as protesters were arrested, beaten and murdered by government forces. The authorities denied the attacks, so Waad kept filming to show the world the truth.
Channel 4 News broadcast al-Kateab’s videos and her seldom seen perspective of women and children under threat brought the reality of the Aleppo siege home to a wider audience. Her reportage went on to win an international Emmy.
There were chances for the family to leave Aleppo, but they decided to remain there with their baby daughter for as long as possible. “Maybe that doesn’t make sense to anyone,” says al-Kateab. “But the relationship with our friends in Aleppo, for us, it meant everything. We were all together in this. It was not that we didn’t care if we were killed but that we would fight to stay alive together.”
Al-Kateab was pregnant with her second daughter, Taima, when the family was finally evacuated from Aleppo at the siege’s end in December 2016. They spent time in Turkey then claimed asylum in the UK 18 months ago. Al-Kateab found work as a producer at Channel 4 News and created the film that won best documentary at Cannes and received a six-minute standing ovation.
For Sama is a tough watch, but it’s also charged with a powerful resolve. After I saw it, I couldn’t shake it off. It made me want to do something to help, rather than just assume I couldn’t make a difference to people’s lives in an unending conflict far away. I’m not the only one. “After every screening, people come to us and say, ‘What can we do?’” says al-Kateab. “They feel a little bit of sadness, but a lot of anger. And that anger needs to be transferred to action so we can help people.”
It’s a tremendously important film that will make you terribly sad and incredibly angry. You will be inspired by its kindness, love and resilience. And in awe of the truly remarkable young woman who lived it and who asks you not to look – or run – away, because neither did she.
What initially inspired you to join the protests against the government?
Before the revolution, I planned to leave Syria to build my life because there was no future in my country. If you stayed, you had to be part of the regime’s system of corruption and injustice in order to have everything you wanted. When the revolution started, we felt that there could be change.
Why did you start filming what you saw?
In the beginning, the regime denied everything that was happening. Then they called the protesters terrorists. So it was my duty to film this peaceful movement. I couldn’t even shout anything at my first protest because I couldn’t believe this was happening in Syria. I just froze.
In the middle of the unrest, you fell in love with Hamza. How did you meet?
We were in the same protest coordinating group. There were eight of us volunteers. We’d eat together every day, share a lot at the hospital where he was a doctor. We became friends, then very close. One day I stopped him going to a pro-Assad protest because I thought he would do something crazy like tear up a picture of Assad [and get into trouble].
Two of your group, Gaith and his brother Mahmoud, were killed in an air raid. How did losing your friends change your perspective?
When Gaith was killed, I didn’t want to be in Aleppo any more. But also, we couldn’t give up now. Someone had been killed, I’d seen his body. We were like family. I couldn’t just leave the place.
Alongside this, normal life continued. Do you have any happy memories of that time?
Our wedding took place in a small room at our friends’ house. There were around 12 close friends and we were all trying to pretend that it was normal. It was 2014, and I hadn’t had my hair and make-up done in Aleppo for two years. A nurse in the hospital used to be a hairdresser so she did it for me. My flowers were plastic because it was hard to get real flowers. I borrowed the dress from my friend who had got married three months previously. We lived in the same house so when the wedding was over, we just came downstairs. There were many funny things [about that day] that still make me happy.
How did you decide to have a child at such a dangerous time?
Having Sama meant not just having a child, it meant the future. We had to think about it in real [terms] because we would, in 50 years, pass away and leave a child. So we had to make the future a better one for her. It wasn’t a mistake. We brought Sama into this life thinking that she was part of the resilience of the city.
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Did becoming a mother alter your outlook on what was happening?
I felt everything more deeply than ever. The happiness, the sadness, the fear. Everything was about that moment because it could end. I thought, I need to stay with Sama as much as I can and give her the deepest love that I have, more than any mum in the world. That’s part of the guilt that any mum around the world can feel, even if she lives in perfect circumstances with money and a great husband, there’s still a [sense of being a] guilty mum [laughs].
Were you conscious of your role as a female filmmaker?
I was a female filmmaker, and I was a mum, and I was a woman living this. So I could feel and see many of the things that were happening and know what was important. Also, other women gave me more access; they felt comfortable saying things that men would not understand.
Why did you continue to record everything?
When I have the camera I save that moment, whether it was giving birth to Sama or even when Mahmoud was killed. The camera made things more real. I acknowledged and saved it. That happened and that’s what we lived through.
Did you meet with any resistance to filming?
People in Aleppo usually think two things. One: why film it? The world watched us at war before and nothing happened. The other argument is that being at war is the only way people outside see us. I felt both. In the film, you see a woman [whose son has just been injured] say, “Film us, let the world see.” At that moment, I was like a machine. I couldn’t really feel or think; I was just in that moment. It explains why we did this film.
How important were your friends during all of this?
The friendships I made with other women were incredibly important. We would go to the Old City to sit, talk, watch the sunset and have our great moments. These relationships – and I’m so serious about this – this is why we survived.
What is life like now you’re living in London?
I love London so much. For me, Aleppo is number one, then London is number two. I really feel at home here. I felt so welcomed by so many people. The C4 News staff followed me around for the last year in Aleppo, so when I came here they were like family.
What is your favourite London thing to do?
I love to go to the Southbank to walk with my family. Sama loves it too. I find a lot of space to process things.
What made you decide to centre your film on Sama?
I’d never thought about doing the film this way but in the process, the structure of telling the story through Sama [made sense]. After all, Hamza and I did everything for Sama. When I called Hamza to tell him the idea, he was in tears so we knew it was a good one.
You and Hamza had made a pact early on in Aleppo not to cry, hadn’t you?
He’s always so tough and he doesn’t want to express anything. So if Hamza was emotional, it was the right thing to do!
How are you now?
Sometimes I feel I’m so strong I can fell the regime now. And sometimes I think why am I speaking to people about a film? But the film is so important, because what we experienced in Aleppo is happening right now in the neighbouring city of Idlib. We are focused on the film as a tool for change, to stop what’s happening in Syria now.
We can’t be weak. We can’t process what happened. I get nightmares. I tried to see a therapist but I stopped because it is not about me. Until there is accountability in Syria, nothing will change on the ground or in our minds. Only then can we start to think about how we can treat ourselves.
This article was originally published in 2019.
Images: PBS Frontline
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