For Sama had its UK release at the 26th edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest. It won the Golden Eye Documentary Prize at Cannes film festival 2019.
Journalist Waad al-Kateab spent five years documenting the atrocities inflicted by President Assad’s regime upon civilians in Aleppo. A student of economics at Aleppo University when the 2011 war began, Waad took her camera to the streets and began documenting the devastation of the Syrian regime and its allies. At the same time she found love and became a mum, marrying Hamza (one of the 32 doctors who stayed in East Aleppo) and having her first child, Sama, while airstrikes bombarded the city.
In 2016 Waad met her co-director Edward Watts, and their film, For Sama, took off. “I got involved when these great people [Waad and Hamza] left Aleppo,” Watts tells me when I sat down with the filmmakers just a few hours before the UK premiere of their film at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. “No one knew about the incredible footage that she’d created while she was there. Initially it was in the region of 300 hours of footage that she managed to get out of Aleppo. And then subsequently there were more hard drives, more footage. It was somewhere between 300-500 hours, which we edited down to 94 minutes within two years.”
Back in 2015 Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story made headlines by taking us through the odyssey of comrades and lovers Raghda and Amer as they fought for political freedom. But things haven’t changed much since then. For Sama shows “the truth of a human experience, alongside the incredible humanity we all share,” Watts says. “We really hope, in the bigger sense, this film can make a difference, to actually make people in our countries and around the world say, ‘Oh my God! What did we allow to happen to our fellow human beings?’ The female lens in the film captured a humanity that normally we don’t get in the media. I really feel that it actually gets to the heart of the human experience in these kind of situations: the fact that you go from destruction and danger to jokes and laughter. Love and death coexist in this way.”
A diary of love in a war-torn city, the film questions morality and how we, the international community, read and respond to the terrors that keep happening. “For many years, I was saying that we need to make films about Syria,” says Watts. “We needed to tell the truth about what is happening because I felt that the news was not actually [showing] the human truth of what is going on there. When you see people in this film, you recognise them as your neighbours, as your friends from university. They’re living a life that you recognise, worrying about food, worrying about their kids, and yet they’re in this extraordinary situation.”
Everything that’s in the news right now we’ve seen before: first the regime besieged Aleppo, and Waad’s family, friends and neighbours were displaced; then Damascus was besieged and its citizens displaced; now they’re launching attacks in Idlib. In fact, For Sama focuses on the reconstruction of a hospital, which was being bombed during filming.
“The only place which is still out of the regime’s control is the city of Idlib,” explains Waad. “You can think of it as a small Syria because of all the people who’ve been displaced there from other cities like Aleppo, Homs and Darayya. More than three million civilians live in the area now. The attacks are still happening, and both the Russians and the regime are trying to take over this place. People flee from one area to another to escape the shelling. We don’t know when or how it will be stopped; we don’t have a solution.”
“The children, the markets – everywhere is under the Russian and Syrian aircraft attacks,” Hamza adds. “They’re saying that Assad controls 90% of Syria at the moment. No one from the big nations cares enough about the people who are still living in Idlib.”
For Sama is a letter to the director’s first daughter, born in Aleppo at the height of the regime’s cruelties, shortly before airstrikes drove Waad and her family out of the city in December 2016. Through Waad’s narration the film questions morality, the power of love and humanity. But I can’t help but think of Sama’s reaction to these images when she grows up. I ask Waad how she could explain the horror to her if these images didn’t exist? “Of course it’s difficult,” she says, “and the film is the easiest and most natural way to explain what was happening without giving my opinion as a mother. Maybe the only other way to explain is to introduce the people who were with us and [let her] listen to stories of what was happening.”
The people in the story are trying to save their lives and homes, which is a different reality to that which we read about in the news. “So many people in the west just think of Syria as a battle between the government and terrorists. They think of Syrian people as terrorists or refugees” says Watts. But for the people in the story, abandoning your home is the worst option, as it would be for anyone.
“Even when we were leaving,” Waad recalls, “we didn’t expect that we would be safe, because we were scared that anything could still happen at the checkpoint. We were just trying to say goodbye to each other, to everything. I was pregnant with my second daughter and Sama was about one year old. So there wasn’t any other choice but to feel hope for this little life. You feel guilty because of what she went through. So you need to take her hand and go forward and try to give her a good life from there on.”
For Sama won the Best Documentary prize at Cannes this year. Waad hopes that the international community is finally paying attention. “As a Syrian who lived the story, it means a lot to me. The award gave this film value,” she says. “There was this really important moment when we were besieged in Aleppo: people around the world were taking part in big demonstrations, asking to save Aleppo and its citizens. We gained a lot of strength because we saw that these people who we’d never met really cared about our situation. I believe that’s why we came out safe, because the people who were demonstrating didn’t let everything happen in silence.”
Hopefully For Sama will help people wake up to the fact that the crisis is not over. The attacks are happening as we speak. “What we tried to show in the film,” explains Waad “was the way I was feeling while I was there. I was amazed by life – the love between Hamza and myself and the nice moments between our friends. We always tried to do everything together; we just tried to build something strong to stay alive and challenge the bad situation we were living in. Even if they were small things. That’s what we tried, to find these moments together. It’s really what all the people in the story felt – that this was our life. It was what we lived.”