For Sama captures life in Aleppo under siege. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before.

There have been many documentaries about the bombings of and humanitarian crisis in Aleppo in recent years, and many of them — films like The White Helmetsand Last Men in Aleppohave been excellent. But For Sama is a new take on the same subject, and it’s truly outstanding.

Waad Al-Kateab and her husband Hamza, a doctor, are native Syrians. Political activists since their university days, the couple was living in Aleppo when Syrians began to protest the government and Bashar al-Assad. Al-Kateab began filming what was happening, especially as airstrikes and bombings began. The pair were married, and their daughter Sama was born in 2016. They remained in Aleppo for years, with Hamza running a hospital, as the bombings continued. Al-Kateab kept filming, eventually working with Channel 4 in the UK as a citizen journalist to get footage of life behind the bombings to the world.

The family did finally leave Aleppo in 2016, and Al-Kateab worked with Channel 4, which is when she began working with British documentarian Edward Watts. They turned her years of footage into For Sama. It documents life in Aleppo and in Hamza’s hospital during the years-long siege, but even more movingly, it offers an explanation, addressed to young Sama, for why her parents kept her in a dangerous place and why their work was important.

The film premiered at SXSW in March; in May, it was one of only a few documentaries selected to play at Cannes, where I first met Al-Kateab and Watts for a panel discussion at the American Pavilion. (The film took home the top documentary prize at the festival.) We met again in New York in July to talk about how they made the film, what they’ve learned, and how hopeful its reception has made them.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Alissa Wilkinson

The siege of Aleppo has been the subject of many documentaries in recent years. But your film is different. It’s a much more personal story. When you were making this film, were you trying to bring something new to audiences?

Waad Al-Kateab

In the beginning, I didn’t want [to do] that at all. I was convinced it was important to tell the story and make it more personal in order to make more people engaged with the story. As a Syrian filmmaker, as Syrian people, we needed to try to find a new way to make people more engaged with our cause and our story. People were just getting tired of what they’ve seen before on the news.

When I was filming, I had no idea what the film would be, specifically. But I knew it was very important and should be documented for the future.

After they watch, people have been really engaged. They are not just moved by the story, but they want to do something. They ask us, “What can we do now?” That’s very important and it really makes a difference.

A scene from the documentary “For Sama” in which a man, woman, and child stand looking at the bombed remains of a building where someone has spray painted, “We don’t want to leave, we were forced to flee.”
A scene from For Sama.

Edward Watts

The amazing footage that Waad captured showed so many things that I think people hadn’t seen before. It’s a female eye on war, and had different priorities [than other films about Aleppo]. It wasn’t about bang, bang, guns going off. It was about human beings and how they lived. It was almost filling in the gaps behind those [war] images. People have seen destroyed buildings and dead people. This is how people actually lived behind that scene of violence.

Waad Al-Kateab

Also, it’s a way for people to be in touch with details which they live in their everyday life. Everyone has gotten married, or fallen in love, or had a kid, or their sister has had a kid. That makes it more close to the [audience’s] lives. Anyone can see themselves in the film, instead of me or our situation.

Alissa Wilkinson

I know youshot lots and lots of footage. When you went back through it to create the film, did you look for those small details in order to capture and hold the audience’s attention?

Edward Watts

I mean, there were so many of those details. It was more just like, which of the details will we pick?

Alissa Wilkinson

That brings up a big question. This was a traumatic experience to live through. Then Waad had to go back and relive it in order to make the movie. What was that like for you?

Waad Al-Kateab

I was very aware what the risk would be, if I went through this experience. But at the same time, I have that responsibility. We didn’t think that we would make it out [of Aleppo] safe. We must have [survived] for a reason. The reason is to tell this story.

And the story is still happening. Other places have been besieged and people displaced. It’s unbelievable. The situation is still getting worse and worse. As we’re speaking now, it’s still happening in Aleppo.

So I felt that it was important to ignore my feelings as an individual and be more focused on how important it is for people to see the story, to watch it, and to know exactly what the situation looks like. There are families being targeted in Aleppo now. It really doesn’t matter much what I’m going through, personally. It hurt me, but it also made me stand now and tell the story in a thoughtful way. I have that responsibility.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s bringing some meaning to what you and your family went through.

Waad Al-Kateab

Yes. We lost Aleppo. We lost that struggle there. But I have this footage. I can do my own private war.

Edward Watts

Stand up for the truth.

Waad Al-Kateab in a muslim headscarf stands in front of a ruined building and looks at the image in her digital camera while shooting footage for the documentary “For Sama.”
Waad Al-Kateab shoots footage for For Sama.

Alissa Wilkinson

Ed, you didn’t live through this conflict yourself. As you came into the project and looked at Waad’s footage, what challenges did you face?

Edward Watts

The biggest challenge I felt was the responsibility to do it right. This process took so long. There were moments where we thought it was all finished, but then I was like, “No. It’s not finished.” I feel that what Waad and Hamza had lived through and who they are was unique. What Waad captured was unique. It was such an important thing for all of us to see that and take lessons. It weighed very heavily on me to do it right.

Also, a lot of documentaries are made where you go into a place, you stay as long as you can, but then you leave. If you’re a good documentary maker, you then show it to the people [you filmed], and they give you feedback.

But it’s never the same as the reality of being as plugged in as she and I have been fortunate enough to be. We could argue about every single detail so it felt authentic to her, but also appropriate to the film and good to the audience. That’s what I was trying to distill.

Waad Al-Kateab

And also for the different audiences! He was worried more about the Western audience — people whonever had these experiences, how they would watch the films since they can’t totally understand what’s going on.

For me, I cared about the local audience, who lived the story or knew a lot of about the war in Aleppo. I wanted them to understand what was happening in the film. I wanted people who lived the story to feel that this was their story too.

We needed to balance these two audiences.

Edward Watts

Yes, to balance their needs.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which are very different needs!

Edward Watts

Yes, very different.

Waad Al-Kateab

We got that reaction from people who were in the film [when they saw it]. They said, “Oh my god. This is our story.”

Edward Watts

I felt like, “Okay. We did our job.” You know?

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, there’s a third audience, obviously, in the title: Sama. Someday, she’ll see the film, and in it Waad talks to her. That’s part of what makes the film powerful: It feels like we’re eavesdropping on a story being told to her. Can you talk about why you chose to structure the film that way?

Waad Al-Kateab

At the beginning when I was filming, I had no idea what the structure would be. I was just trying to film everything that amazed me, or that I thought really meant something. But when we were putting together the film, we started with it being chronological. Then, two-thirds of the way through post-production, we said we needed to make something different.

Edward Watts

It was a long process.

Waad Al-Kateab

We went through the whole archive [of footage] to figure out what we needed to tell people about in the film. Then we had that discussion: “We should make it for Sama.”

Edward Watts

Yeah. It was staring us in the face. That conversation, Waad talking to Sama, was all there in the footage — little amazing moments with Waad talking to her in the early morning. It was just that it took us a moment to realize that we should take that, and then …

Waad Al-Kateab

… Build everything around that. We went back and started to make it for Sama. We knew that was very, very good idea.

Edward Watts

You were fighting for Sama. Everything was for Sama.

“For Sama” Photocall - The 72nd Annual Cannes Film Festival
Edward Watts, Waad Al-Kateab, and Hamza Al-Kateab at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019.

Waad Al-Kateab

I showed Hamza and said, “Look, here’s the new idea for the film.” Hamza is never moved with things, or in tears. But after one minute of the film, I saw his eyes get wet, and I was calling Ed, like, “We did it! We did it!”

Edward Watts

We’re on the right track! Even Hamza cried!

Waad Al-Kateab

If Hamza cried, this is the best thing we could do.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s also something that helps you get around one of the film’s big challenges. The questions you’re answering for Sama in the film are also questions that audience members might be asking themselves. Why did you stay in Aleppo? Why did you put yourself and your daughter in the way of danger? Making the film as a way of answering those questions for Sama means that instead of defending your choices to the audience, you’re explaining them for your daughter.

Waad Al-Kateab

It also was a very big responsibility. I was honest in some moments where I didn’t want to be. That was big and important for me, because I know that this [film] will be here forever. When Sama grows up, throughout her life, she will be able to see it again.

Edward Watts

Also, it really got to the heart of the terrible Sophie’s choice at the heart of the film. It’s elemental. On the one hand, your ideals keep you there [in the midst of the war]. On the other hand, you want to be safe. How can you possibly choose?

Alissa Wilkinson

There’s no right answer.

Edward Watts

Exactly.

Waad Al-Kateab

“You don’t care about your child” — I’ve heard this before, you know? I knew some people would think about it. Some people might think, She doesn’t care about her daughter. She just cares about the filming, about making a dramatic film. I don’t care about them thinking that, but I do really care about what I was thinking when we were there and how I can speak up in the voice of a mother, or any mother who is there and having that experience. When I was there, I couldn’t really speak out. But now it’s very important to let people know what that experience is like.

Edward Watts

We’re fortunate in we don’t have to make those choices. Our grandparents, at least, had to make similar choices. Now we sort of sit around, “It will never happen here.” But who knows in this world we’re living in. Maybe more of us will have to make really tough decisions like that, about our values or our safety.

Alissa Wilkinson

And that’s a decision lots of people are making all over the world, trying to cross borders or flee to safety.

Edward Watts

I know people who are even fleeing from Britain now. They’re the early birds.

Alissa Wilkinson

What kind of reactions have you gotten? It seems as if the film has been well-received.

Edward Watts

“Well-received” — that’s a good British way of putting it!

Waad Al-Kateab

It’s great.

Edward Watts

It’s been bonkers. We would never in our wildest imagination have imagined this.

Waad Al-Kateab

For so long, we were just in a very dark room, editing. We had no idea if people would throw potatoes or tomatoes at us.

Edward Watts

We thought everyone might leave during the film, because it was too much. We didn’t think anyone would stay, in the first screening!

Documentary filmmakers Edward Watts and Waad and Hamza Al-Kateab hold up signs that read “Stop bombing hospitals.”
Edward Watts and Waad and Hamza Al-Kateab arrive on the red carpet for the film Les Miserables at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019.

Waad Al-Kateab

We knew that it’s a really important story, but we knew we couldn’t judge how important [it would be to audiences], because it was my story. And Ed was involved by then.

Edward Watts

By that time, yeah.

Waad Al-Kateab

He was “in” the story too. So it was really shocking [how warmly audiences responded].

Edward Watts

In my experience, people don’t stand up to applaud many films. And definitely not documentaries.

Waad Al-Kateab

We had many standing ovations in the one screening, which is like, No, no. Please stop. Stop.

Edward Watts

Like at Cannes — we had one [ovation] for the film, then we were like, “Hamza’s here,” and everyone got up again. We had one for the Q&A. By the end, we were just like, “All right.”

Waad Al-Kateab

Also, at Nantucket. People said to us, “There’s never, never, ever a standing ovation for any film [at the Nantucket Film Festival].” And all these people who are like 60 and 70 and 80 were struggling to stand up. I was like, “Oh my god! Please, no!” It was really crazy.

Edward Watts

It gives me hope. When we were making it and when we were applying for festivals and stuff, everyone was like, “Everyone’s tired of Syria. It’s such a tough watch.” All this stuff.

But actually, it’s been the opposite. We’ve had the energy, support, and engagement of people, from Cannes to Nantucket to Sheffield [England, where the film won the Audience Award in June], we’re getting that reaction.

Waad Al-Kateab

All different audiences, very different audiences, have had the same reaction. I feel like human beings share some principles. Wherever you were from, whatever your background is, it’s about human beings.

Edward Watts

I think it’s interesting seeing Western audiences coming up afterwards and saying, “God. Now we realize what we allowed to happen. How could we have allowed this to happen?”

Waad Al-Kateab

We were very shocked about how publicists and distributors want to put it in public cinemas. When we started this process, the first publicists were like, “No. People will not take it for the cinemas.” But suddenly, after it was in festivals, people are coming to us from China, from Japan.

Edward Watts

From Kosovo.

Waad Al-Kateab

They wanted it to be shown in public. Not just a private audience or specific screening for some festival. It’s more about just normal people want to watch that. It’s unbelievable.

For Sama opens in select theaters on July 26 and will air on Frontline later this year.

Original Source: https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/7/26/8929248/for-sama-interview-aleppo-syria

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