9 Jul 2019

For Sama: rare window on Syrian conflict

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 9 July 2019

It was an instinctual act for student turned journalist Waad al-Kateab to pick up her phone to film the Syrian uprising - what she didn't expect was where that journey would take her.

The result is a rare look at a women’s experience of the Syrian conflict in the award winning  film 'For Sama' dedicated to her baby daughter, to whom she gave birth to in under-siege Aleppo.

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Photo: www.ForSamaFilm.com

In 2011, Al-Kateab first picked up her phone to film.

“In the beginning, in 2011, we were protesting in the streets and… all of the journalists were inside Syria who were controlled by the regime, they were giving wrong information about what was happening.

“I just felt I should do that as a responsibility of what’s going on and how we can save these days and tell the truth about what’s going on.”

Over time she improved her skills behind the lens and moved on to use professional cameras.

“The first story was the story of change, of trying to change our life and the people around us and… this is why we went to the streets and start to protest.

“With time, this situation was getting worse and worse.”

What happened next was a massacre; more than 135 bodies were found in a river.

Al-Kateab documented the aftermath but she says she still had hope that one day, something would change.

The people who she shared moments with during the siege became her family.

“We shared these moments and this experience when any moment you could be killed and anyone around you. It was just a very, very strange relationship, and very strong.”

During this time, Al-Kateab lived in a hospital that her husband Hamza created.

“This is a place where we could stay as much as we can around with the people who we knew. We didn’t have our families in Aleppo, but we had the medical staff, our friends and all of the people who we lived with for more than five years.”

When the hospital began to be shelled, those living there decided to stay.

“We tried to think but, in this situation, and in this terrible moments, you really can’t think. What is moving you, it’s more about your emotion and as the fears lead you to live, at the same time, the strength… belonged to the place, which leads you more to stay.”

Al-Kateab says they didn’t know what would happen in the end, but they felt they were doing their duty as activists and humans who lived in Aleppo - they believed in change.

“We stayed to the last minute, when the choice to stay wasn’t ours.”

A month before their displacement, things got much worse. Al-Kateab says they were prepared to stay on but an agreement between Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the UN meant they had to leave.

Her husband Hamza, a doctor, had to decide whether he would stay or go. He had treated thousands of people at the hospital.

“When he should have chose between his private life and his own family, and between the things that he believed in he just chose not to live his own life…especially Hamza, as a doctor, he knew exactly what difference he could make.

“He just sacrificed his own life for the revolution and for the life he thought could be better for people, more than his own life.”

UK director Edward Watts was brought in to help with the film after Al-Kateab had left Aleppo.

“I felt very strongly that what this conflict was about, at its heart, was middle class secular people, protesting for their basic right, which is what Wadd and Hamza represents.”

Al-Kateab shot around 300 hours of footage.

“We really only show a fraction of the horror that her camera captured, and her camera only captured a fraction of the actual horror that existed," Watts says.

The film is dedicated to Al-Kateab's daughter Sama.

When she and her husband first found out they were expecting a child, the couple felt like they couldn’t bring up a child in Aleppo but discussing things again they felt as though if they were going to stay living there, they should start their life, start their family.

“What are we waiting for?” she says.

“To be honest, I was very scared, I had lots of fears all the time, and Hamza too but at the same time we were really sure that we want to stay, and we want to raise this girl in this place.

Al-Kateab says she was trying to live a dual life - a normal woman living in Aleppo and raising her child, and a journalist who wanted to document what was happening.

“If you see this footage, you see this mix between these two characters, the mother and the journalist, and that’s actually what makes the film – it’s personal but at the same time very general.”