“For Sama” Director Waad al-Kateab: ‘This film is the only weapon I have against the regime’

April 24, 2019
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by Marcia Robiou Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Waad al-Khataeb

In 2011, as protests against the Assad regime broke out across Syria, economics student Waad al-Kateab grabbed her phone and started filming. For the next five years, al-Kateab would document her surroundings almost constantly — including as destruction took hold in rebel-held Aleppo, her home.

In the FRONTLINE feature film For Sama, al-Kateab provides an unflinching view of motherhood and war. Through hundreds of hours of footage, al-Kateab captured her twenty-something life — falling in love; marrying one of the last doctors in Aleppo; and giving birth to her daughter Sama — as her city crumbles around her. By zeroing in on a hospital’s efforts to cope with the sheer number of casualties, al-Kateab sharpens our understanding of the toll the five-year siege took on civilians.

The film is a letter to Sama, who was born and raised among conflict. But it is also a way for al-Kateab to highlight what happened to her home. “This film is the only weapon I have to fight against the regime,” she said.

For Sama won the SXSW 2019 Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature in March and has been selected to screen at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Following a theatrical release this summer, a broadcast version of For Sama will premiere on FRONTLINE in the U.S. and internationally on the U.K.’s Channel 4. We spoke to Emmy award-winning directors al-Kateab and Edward Watts ahead of For Sama’s appearance at the Hot Docs film festival.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you become a journalist?

Waad al-Kateab: I always dreamed of becoming a journalist. My parents supported me in whatever decision I would make, but with this one, they would say, ‘Don’t do this. You can’t do this.’ My parents — my father especially — would tell me that it is impossible to be a journalist in Syria, and that I would get sent to prison.

Suddenly, in 2011, the revolution started. I wanted to be a part of this change. So, I started filming the protests at Aleppo University with my phone.

From the early days of the revolution, all of the official news channels were saying that nothing was happening, that Syria was a very good country with democracy and freedom. The regime was not allowing any foreign journalists inside the country in the first year to cover the protests. We hadn’t seen anything like this before, so I felt like it was our role to show the world what was happening. I wanted evidence, and I felt that film is a way to really transfer the reality of what was happening to others.

Were there any times when you had to turn the camera off or look away?

Al-Kateab: I was always at the hospital with my camera turned on, filming my friends fighting or laughing or just whatever was happening. Suddenly, we lost one of our friends from this group. I felt that the fact I recorded all of these moments with people I could lose at any time was one of the most amazing things I could do in my life. Since then, I decided to record everything, because one day I may be the one who is killed.

It was also really important to me to record the reality of life under the regime — what our dreams were and how we ended up in all this violence. It is a record for the future that is outside the regime propaganda and misinformation.

The camera became a part of me. It was something that supported me and helped me feel strong even when I felt scared.

Edward Watts: She was unflinching in what she filmed. There is one shot that I could never get out of my head: the pile of dead children just stacked outside a door, literally piled on top of each other. She filmed that, and it was this raw truth.

There are scenes in the film that are quite graphic. What were some of the discussions around what you decided to show?

Al-Kateab: People in Syria had to deal with these things whether we had the strength or not. There was no choice. I wanted the film to be delivered to people just like the war came to us, while being respectful of the dead and their families.

People around the world — even us sometimes — start to see the dead as just numbers. It is different when you see death up close. The solution isn’t to not watch, but in how we react to it.

Watts: It was such a difficult balance to strike. You have a responsibility to show the reality in whatever way you can, because that is how we as a civilization advance and learn from our mistakes. But finding the right balance wasn’t just down to us: it was down to our executives, as well as our friends, family and other people contributing, because we wanted to show the reality and respect the people who were suffering and continue our duty to the truth.

There is a line in the film about how living a normal life in Aleppo is a form of rebellion. Can you talk about what it means to maintain normalcy in the most abnormal of situations?

Al-Kateab: The regime is trying to kill our hope. I really believe that we would not be able to survive without hope.

There was one guy who would deliver flowers — he helped set up the garden on our porch in Aleppo. I filmed him because I wanted to record the hope and beauty of how he continued to do his job despite the siege. He ended up getting killed. When you are really desperate and can’t see anything good, something beautiful comes your way, and that gives you hope.

Watts: That is the mighty humanity on display in the film. It is such an incredible testament to the human spirit and what people can survive.

Why did the chronology of the film jump around instead of staying linear?

Watts: It was so important to be able to move between the light and the dark. We had a previous version that was chronological, and what that meant was you started in all of this joy and hope and light of the revolution. And then you entered this dark pit of the siege and it just felt very unbalanced as a narrative. The movement between the two time periods allows you to move through the humanity and get into the heart and soul of the experience.

Al-Kateab: It shows how any human being can live his life after having these experiences. In each moment — no matter how dark — I always remember the good things. And from the good things, I always come back to some really difficult moments. So, it is exactly how my mind would work.

As a woman and resident of Aleppo, what sort of obstacles and opportunities did you have when filming?

Al-Kateab: Some journalists come for one or two months or one year and then leave. I grew up with these people, and we lived together through the siege for five years. My neighbors were used to seeing me with my camera, and I was also living in the hospital. We faced the same threats together and shared all the good and bad things as a family. This made people feel comfortable around me with a camera.

Has your daughter Sama seen the film?

Al-Kateab: Of course. It has been two years of me working on the film on my laptop. She gets very excited when she sees herself on the screen and shouts her name. We are trying to make sure she remembers where she comes from. When we ask her where she is from, she will say, ‘Syria, Aleppo.’

Has the concept of home changed for you now that you are residing in the U.K.?

Al-Kateab: Home will always be Aleppo and Syria. We are trying to lead a normal life in London, but at any moment we could return to Syria. People always ask me why I stayed in Syria even though there was so much suffering and war. Even though we could have been killed, we were happy to stay because we were fighting for our land, our freedom. When we lost Aleppo, we thought we lost everything. But we do find new hope.

This morning my father called me early  because he wasn’t aware of the time difference. When I told him the time, he asked me why I was checking my phone so early. I laughed and said I am always checking the news to see if the regime has fallen. Then my mom shouted from the other side of the room, ‘don’t worry, if the regime falls, we will call you.’

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