The documentary crowd has seen many stories about the revolution in Syria, but they’ve yet to experience a film like For Sama. It’s the story of the revolution filmed through the eyes of someone who experienced it. Waad al-Kateab is not simply a witness to the revolution in the film; she carries hope for the future of Syria in the form of her daughter, Sama, who is born as the bombs fall in Aleppo.
For Sama is one mother’s personal document of the revolution, seen through her eyes and told from her point of view behind the camera. Directed by al-Kateab and British filmmaker Edward Watts, For Sama follows Waad’s journey as she goes from marketing student at Aleppo University when the conflict breaks out to citizen journalist capturing the everyday horrors and hopes in the war zone. As the film deftly weaves between past and present, For Sama chronicles a story of love and hope as Waad begins a relationship with Hamza, a doctor in an Aleppo hospital. The two friends become lovers and eventually marry, and soon Waad is bringing a new life into Aleppo when so many lives are being lost.
The film is exceptionally powerful as Waad balances her responsibilities to Sama and her duty to document the revolution and share the truth about what is happening in Syria. The director’s courage and spirit draws out the complexity and humanity of the situation as she tries to reconcile the two competing roles she plays. What results is a portrait of the revolution unlike any other, one that observes the worst in the situation, but also everyday moments of humanity that are often overlooked in portraits of conflict zones. There are poignant moments of domestic bliss, which are, tragically, punctuated by images and sounds of violence. There is a unique dualism to this portrait of how life goes on. It’s a necessary reminder of the lives at stake as one protectively watches Sama grow while her parents fight for the world into which they brought her.
POV spoke with directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts prior to the film’s Canadian premiere at Hot Docs and shortly after it was announced as one of the few documentaries in the selection at Cannes this year. Coming to Hot Docs after winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at SXSW in March, For Sama has a story that is bound to connect with audiences around the globe and will hopefully inspire a new level of awareness and action towards the situation in Syria.
POV: Pat Mullen
WA: Waad al-Kateab
EW: Edward Watts
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: Waad, how is Sama doing now?
WA: Sama is fine. She’s very excited and active, like all kids. She’s now three years old, is going to the nursery, and speaks English and Arabic together. She’s a very special girl.
POV: How did your work at The Guardian and Channel 4 News shape your approach to telling this story? How did it change your work on the ground?
WA: They gave me some hope and the belief that if the community outside of Aleppo knows what’s happening there, they may aid people. [People watching the film] may be in the government, or the United Nations, or any of the NGOs that could change our lives. This is not just my feelings and those of the people around me inside Aleppo. We really believed that without the people outside who were protesting to save Aleppo, we wouldn’t be safe. We had to report on the deals between the Russian government and the Syrian government, on one side, and the FSA [Free Syrian Army] fighters inside Aleppo. Then people outside knew that they [the FSA] were actively trying to save us. I really believe if we were silenced and the people outside were silent, we would have been killed in silence without any action.
POV: Edward, how did you become involved in the production?
EW: I’ve been making documentaries for a long time and in different parts of the world. Syria was a subject that I was very passionate about early on. I felt that we all had a stake in what the Syrian people were fighting for. They were fighting for principles that we all share: democracy and human dignity. The truth of that conflict is being distorted and manipulated, especially by the regime. For many years, I was saying to my colleagues that we needed to make a film about Syria and what’s happening there. I made a film about ISIS and I was trying to do what I could to tell that story. When Waad came out of Syria, she revealed that she had this incredible personal archive covering her time in Aleppo. When that happened, they [the producers] called me because they knew the combination of the two of us could a good way to tie her footage together into a coherent story that would appeal to the widest possible audience.
POV: Waad, how did you feel about passing along the story to another director and working with Edward to develop such a personal story?
WA: At first, it was difficult because we were coming from different backgrounds with different experiences. At the end, I do believe that without Edward, the story would not be as it is now with how it shows my journey through Aleppo. Some of the things he added as a director were important. Also, for a man to care about my story, about Syria, I felt that was important because I’m the other side, the female perspective. It was important to have cooperation between two different experiences, two different people, and two different views about what is happening. I was the Syrian and he was the outside professional. I knew what was happening in Syria and he knew about audiences and what they care about. The film tells my story from my own perspective in the end.
EW: I think it’s been two years almost to the day since I first met Waad. That two year process was about us learning to work together and understand each other, to talk the same language, and to define the film together in cooperation, as Waad said. That was its amazing strength. We could write the voiceover together: Waad could talk about what she was feeling and I could take those thoughts and work with her to convey them in the best way possible within the context of narration.
POV: How was it telling the story of Syria and the conflict through one family’s story? Your previous work has been on a larger scale, which this has, but the framing’s quite different.
EW: That was one of the journeys we went on. Waad had such an extraordinary archive, so it was a process of finding out that through her personal story, you could tell the whole conflict through her eyes. One of my mentors told me that you’re always looking for the smallest window with the biggest view in filmmaking and, in a sense, what Waad did in her life and with her family was that incredible window.
POV: What inspired the time structure of the film? The way it flashes forward and back, moving between past and present, kept me in suspense, but also proved very effective in unpacking the political context of the situation.
WA: With the final three months in Syria, in Aleppo, we wanted to use flashbacks to show exactly how the human brain works if you want to tell stories. It shows how we could come upon a decision when you examine the danger and the risks. We had to show the beginning of this risk and why we were there. It also helped us answer questions through the story like why we stayed there [in Aleppo] when we could leave, why we got married, and why we decided to bring Sama into this life. That message was the point.
EW: The first versions of the film were chronological. What was interesting about that was that it stopped being about Waad and humanity. It just became like, “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” We discovered the movement between time zones, the flashbacks, were so important because, just to further what Waad is saying, it’s amazing that within this conflict, you have the darkness and then you have the jokes. In the first scene, you go from carnage to everyone laughing and being together. The flashback allowed us to move between the light and the dark, which is much closer to the truth. That’s what Waad was saying: even in the dark times, there was all this humor, love, and affection. That flashback structure allowed us to reflect that more truthfully as a piece of cinema.
WA: And with the amount of archive that I had and the way that I was involved in the story, because I lived there, it was hard for me to understand what was happening. Ed understood the real story behind all this footage. We couldn’t do it without going chronologically in the first version. That gave us an understanding, even for me, because it was hard to do the film straight away. It was difficult and important to go through different starts to reach the right story.
POV: I like how there are some very unexpected moments in the film, like the scene where your the neighbor is given the persimmon and becomes so, so happy. Why was it important to keep filming in these moments?
WA: When I filmed that shot, as an example, I wasn’t sure what I would do with it. The reason why I kept filming was that I had the feeling that we would be killed at any moment. But, in Aleppo, there wasn’t just a war. There were human beings, people who dream for freedom and who dream to be able to change their lives for the better. With the regime and the war, I had the feeling the whole time that we are a people who deserve to stay alive and not be threatened all the time with bombs or fears for being killed. This woman gave me hope at the time. I really wanted to keep this moment alive because everything is happening—the bad and the good.
POV: What was the biggest challenge in balancing your role as a parent and filmmaker? Edward, are you a parent?
EW: I’m not, but that’s an easy one. I’ll leave it to Waad. [Laughs]
WA: Yes, but you have the same feelings, Edward! You’d do the same.
This is exactly what the film is about. For the many mothers inside Aleppo, inside Syria, or inside any war zone, there is a very big struggle between what we want to do and what we should do. For me, as a journalist, I feel that I should always be filming in dangerous places to show all the women who are there. At the same time, I know that I’m responsible for myself and for my daughter, and there’s a very big risk in Aleppo. The belief in the revolution in Syria gave me a lot of faith and, let’s say, recklessness. I didn’t care if anything happened in some moments, but in the other moments, I really feel that I was responsible for this human being. I brought her to this life. Maybe it’s being selfish, but in this situation, I was really sure where I was needed. On the other hand, I also wanted to raise this child to be good, so how are we going to teach her these things if I don’t care for other people?
The biggest challenge is the divide between yourself: what should you do and what you will do. In Aleppo, there is no safe place. If I was outside filming, I was thinking about her the whole time. I couldn’t take her with me outside, but even if she stayed in our home or in the hospital, she’s not safe at all. The stories you face every day, as a mother, you can feel it more than anyone else. As you see in the film, there were many dead kids. I always had this feeling that one day it would be Sama instead of one of them. It’s a difficult feeling when you know you can’t protect anyone around you and you can’t protect yourself.
POV: Edward, for your documentary Escape from ISIS, former British Prime Minister David Cameron cited it while speaking to the need to address the situation. How did hearing how a documentary can play a direct role in effecting change direct your work on this film and your work that will come after?
EW: This is the film I always wanted to make because there’s an important impact point about the Syrian conflict. We all have a stake in the struggle that Waad, Hamza, and their daughter Sama have experienced. When you look around the world today, so many issues, whether it be the refugee crisis, the rise of ISIS, or polarization between communities—even the rise of the far right—can be traced back to the way that people who shared the beliefs and the values of Waad and Hamza didn’t stand with them. We didn’t support them enough, as I see it. These dark things were allowed to come into the world.
This film has an important message about what really happened in Syria. We should all think about the fact that a) that story was manipulated and we fell for the manipulation and b) we looked away when we should have been looking hard at the Syrian situation. Even today, people are dying in Syria. Before I came on this call, I was watching the news: there are bombings taking place in the last rebel area in the northwest of Syria. We really need to take a hard look at ourselves and say it affects us if innocent people are killed in this way.
I feel incredibly privileged to have been born in Britain with all the privileges that you have simply by being British—freedom, dignity, and the right to pursue your life pretty much as you choose. I believe it’s beholden on us, people in countries of privilege, to use our gift and our privilege to try to help, and to try to do something to make this world a better place, rather than pulling up the drawbridge and sitting in our ivory tower while the rest of the world burns. That attitude is no longer viable in a world where you have global warming and you have interconnected conflicts. For my part, I am going to devote my life to using my skills to do things like we’ve done on this film, which is to come together with an incredible person like Waad and work with her to tell her story so that she has the best platform to show the world how we should really behave.
POV: As audiences are motivated by the film and moved by it, what are things they can do? What is the next step?
WA: The first thing to do is stop listening to the propaganda of the regime that this is a war. This is not a war; this is a revolution. We’re trying to teach people in Syria, around Syria, around the world, that this is what they’ve done. This is all from asking for your rights, for asking for you freedom. The country will be destroyed, you will be a refugee, and nothing will be better in your next life if you don’t fight. The first thing is to believe in our morals and our principles, and our freedom, dignity, and justice. Help people speak out and show them that there’s just one role to play. If you play this role, and you’re right and honest, nothing will stop you.
I don’t regret anything that we did. I know that in any moment, I could have lost my life, my daughter, and my husband. I would do it again and again because this is our life and we should be able choose our life, not anyone else. When we chose to leave at the end, we were very lost until now. I’m now living in London and I am starting a new life, but I will never forget Aleppo or Syria. I will never forget the cause I’m fighting for. There will be justice when all the people who are Syrian can be back in our country free without arrests, without killings, or without seeing a life lost for nothing. I dream of our lives being changed for the best.
For Sama screens:
-Mon, Apr. 29 at 8:15 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Tues, Apr. 30 at 12:45 p.m. at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Sat, May 4 at 1:00 p.m. TIFF Lightbox
Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!
Hot Docs runs April 25 to May 5. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.