The Inspiring Young Mother Who Made a Must-See Film on Syria’s Civil War

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For Sama, 2019 (Film still)
For Sama, 2019 (Film still)

Waad al-Kateab speaks to AnOther about creating For Sama, one of the most powerful, moving and necessary pieces of filmmaking of the last decade

In 2011, while studying Economics at the University of Aleppo, Waad al-Kateab (not her real name, she uses a pseudonym to protect her relatives) joined the thousands of students protesting the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. One of a number of energised and optimistic political movements crescendoing across the region during the Arab Spring, Waad and her fellow classmates fought for democratic reforms and a recognition of citizens’ civil liberties. Their hope? That Syria’s young president might, just might, hold the country’s security forces to account and bring an end to an increasingly militaristic state. Instead Assad instructed servicemen to fire live rounds at protestors, holding hundreds in custody, including a 13-year-old boy, Hamza al-Khateeb, who was badly beaten and eventually tortured to death.

Outraged at the lack of coverage from the local press, Waad picked up her camera. “The gap in the media was so huge – the regime was controlling all the information channels, every journalist, every paper, everything, we needed to build our own media platform. That’s when I started to film in the streets. It became something I needed to do,” she tells us.

For Sama is the result of that decision – one of the most powerful, moving and necessary pieces of filmmaking of the last decade. Documented over five years, from the first uprisings in Aleppo to the sacking of the city by Assad’s Russia-supported forces, the film is equal parts intimate and epic in the way it captures one woman’s experience of war. Initially unsteady with a camera, Waad’s uncertainty in her role as a filmmaker ends up becoming the film’s greatest strength. “When I first started filming, I couldn’t decide which one I was – a protestor or someone filming,” she says. “One of my cousins, I showed him some videos and he shouted at me ‘This is not useful, you can’t use this for anything! You can’t chant and film at the same time!’ I was like oh, OK, so I don’t want to film for you, I want to film for myself. I couldn’t step back from the protests, nor from the worst affected parts of Aleppo. I was mixed between the journalist I want to be and the woman who’s witnessing this and participating in it.”

Dedicated from a young mother to her daughter, For Sama tells the story of Waad’s life through half a decade of struggle as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth, whilst conflict collapses the city around her. It’s an urgent and deeply personal document of events that are all too often digested and discarded in an endlessly churning news cycle. It was a daunting task to keep shooting – Waad filmed from the front lines, capturing the conflict as it unfolded. “Filming gave me purpose, and helped remove me from the situation. I felt sometimes like I wasn’t there. I thought ‘I won’t be killed, nothing bad will happen’ – I was so focused on filming.” Her greatest challenge, though, came while editing several hundred hours of footage as she began work on post-production for the doc. “The editing was hard – as we were working on the film, the war was happening in other places in Syria. All I could think about was the people we loved, people who we didn’t know, the things that happened to them, the fact that we lost Aleppo... it was very difficult.”

A moment that speaks particularly powerfully to For Sama’s mission is captured when a mother, holding the body of her son Mohammad, turns fiercely towards the camera, looking us square in the eye. We hold our breath, expecting anguished shouts of “What are you doing?” Instead, she simply wails: “Keep filming!” It’s an impulse Waad understood immediately. “I went to lower the camera, to move it or turn it off, but she told me ‘Keep filming so the world knows.’ I lifted the camera again.”

For Sama is, as you might expect, a challenging watch, but in many ways that’s the whole point and purpose of the film – to invite viewers not to look away, to acknowledge the experience of those living through unimaginable difficulty. It’s a balance Waad and co-director Edward Watts were keenly aware of. “We weren’t born in that situation, we knew life before the war, so I know how hard this is for people outside to watch this material,” she explains. “It was something Edward and I took a lot of care over, right from the very beginning. That’s why we took two years: we were trying different ways to keep people engaged, not to have them turn their face away.” Hours and hours of tape – around 90 per cent of everything Waad shot, she estimates, including some of her most unflinching footage – remained on the cutting room floor. The hope is that it can still be used as part of a lawsuit against Assad’s regime, alongside footage from citizen journalists and other reporters who witnessed the atrocities taking place. 

Despite having lived through one of the most harrowing periods in Syria’s recent history, Waad remains hopeful. Audience reaction to For Sama, in part, helps affirm her decision to leave Aleppo and share the stories of those she had to leave behind. “It’s so surprising how united the audience is. They have the same feelings, talk about it using the same words, they have the same reaction. People ask, ‘What can we do?’ Every time we have that question. That’s why journalism is so important. We need people to do something.” Where others might become disheartened as attitudes towards immigrants harden across the UK, US and Europe, Waad remains defiant. “We know that this world isn’t good anymore, but we need to fight for it still, we need to think about how we can continue, how we can make things right. The amount of injustice that we see around us, this can’t be the right Earth that we’re living on. We need to keep going until we find when and where that Earth is. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m still alive, to strive towards it, to keep pushing for it. You need to create hope, to create a goal in life, and I just don’t believe that everything we sacrificed in Syria will be for nothing.”

For Sama will screen in select cinemas from September 13, 2019. The film will air on Channel 4 later this autumn.