For Sama: ‘I knew that this was the only way I had of fighting for freedom in Syria’
During the assault on Aleppo, an accidental citizen journalist began filming. She didn’t know she was making one of 2019’s essential documentaries
Waad al-Kateab filming the ruins of a building destroyed by bombing in besieged east Aleppo in October 2016.
Too often international conflicts end up as background noise that plays unnoticed while we go about our lives. Something like that has happened to the Syrian civil war. But one story from Aleppo is capturing attention and changing minds.
During the assault on that city, Waad al-Kateab, an accidental citizen journalist, began filming her personal experiences and the violence unfolding around her. She didn’t know she was making one of 2019’s essential documentaries.
“When I was shooting I had no idea of making it for the news,” she says. “I was shooting and shooting, thinking I could be killed at any moment. And I hoped somebody would take this and do something with it. I knew that this was the only way I had of fighting for freedom in Syria. ”
Named in honour of the daughter born as cluster bombs were falling, For Sama, co-directed with Ed Watts, details her growing relationship with a courageous doctor named Hamza. They meet. They marry. She becomes pregnant. Eventually they flee to safety in London.
We begin with the peaceful protests against the Assad regime and soon end up in a conflict of terrifying dimension. Hospitals are bombed. Children are torn apart. Waad remains stoic.
“For me it seemed gradual,” she says of the escalating conflict. “And it was that way to the end. I don’t know if we were naïve. Right to the last minute we were hoping the worst wouldn’t happen. We were hoping there wouldn’t be a blackout. Assad and Russia would stop. The world outside would do something to help.”
For Sama is an emotional film. It is also an impressive logistical achievement. Waad explains that she was filming every day, month after month. She and Watts, an experienced director for Channel 4 and ITN, spent endless hours debating what to leave in and what to keep.
“She was determined that everything was relevant,” Watts says. “It helped that we had a history. She got married. She had a baby. That gave us something to hold on to. It was like a process of sculpting.”
The finished film played to an ecstatic reception at the Cannes film festival, where it won the L’Œil d’or, presented for best documentary. It is necessarily a hard film to watch. No moment of hope or happiness is too far away from a harrowing tragedy. One scene in particular has already become celebrated. A baby is born by caesarean section and, apparently inanimate, is coaxed towards life by anxious medical staff operating in escalating chaos.
“There were many times when things went better than it seemed they would,” Waad says. “I don’t know if we would have used it if the baby hadn’t survived. We needed some hope in that place. What we needed was to make people understand that not everything has a dark ending.”
Striking a delicate balance
There are inevitably moments when we appear to be intruding on private suffering, but there is little sense that any of Waad’s subjects object to her filming. Indeed, at one point, a bereaved woman, desperate for witness, shouts: “Film this! Film this!” Waad was, however, later made aware that some of the footage might be too gruesome for public presentation.
“At the beginning we had a long conversation about what we will show and what we won’t show,” Waad says. “We needed to break the sheltered view people have. But we want to give them something that is acceptable to view. We had a screening for friends and family. It was too much for them. We went back and changed the texture of the film.”
Watts agrees that a delicate balance had to be struck between necessary horror and the limits of human endurance.
“The scenes of horror we picked couldn’t be too graphic,” he says. “We had footage that showed such terrible injuries to children. That could be overwhelming even watching in the edit suite.”
For Sama does not come across like a campaigning film. But there is, among the filmmakers, a sense that Syria is the war the West ignored. Jaded after the endless nightmare of Iraq, the Europeans and the Americans were reluctant to get involved in another potential quagmire. The presence of the Russians on the government side offered further reasons for caution. But, as the film points out, this is a conflict on a scale that few outside the region have properly grasped.
“Those who were protesting were educated, secular and shared many of our values,” Watts says. “They were then met with medieval violence. Also, I talk about this parallel with the Spanish Civil War. The West thinks war is something we don’t want to do anymore. There is a kind of appeasement there. We may look back on this as we look on the Spanish Civil War. Our acts of appeasement there emboldened fascistic powers.”
The story is currently a happier one for Sama. Waad explains that after they left Aleppo the young girl had trouble sleeping, but she seems to have settled comfortably into her new life. Meanwhile, Waad furthers a campaign – one that wouldn’t be necessary in a sane world – against the bombing of hospitals in war zones.
“We fight to get those red lines back again,” she says. “Targeting schools, killing children, bombing hospitals should be unacceptable.”
And still they wait for the onslaught. We know that Russia is ruthlessly adept at countering bad publicity with propaganda. Has there been any such kickback?
“We keep expecting it to hit and it doesn’t,” Watts says. “We expected it to happen in Cannes. We expected it to happen when we had limited release in the States. We are still waiting. So far the guns have been silent.”
He shrugs a fatalistic shrug.
“It could just be that they don’t know how to argue with this. It’s the truth.”
For Sama is released on September 13th.