When Waad al-Kateab first began filming student protests in Aleppo, Syria, she never expected that she would capture a new movement, the angry retaliation of her country’s government, meeting the man who would become her husband, their wedding, and the birth of their first child, Sama. Now living in the United Kingdom with her family as a refugee, al-Kateab and co-director Edward Watts assembled a documentary from the footage she smuggled out of Syria, a firsthand account of people under terrifying siege, along with their small moments of joy and determination to stay together.
The resulting film, For Sama, both follows the harsh realities of one of the few remaining hospitals in Aleppo, which Waad’s husband Hamza ran, and acts as a time capsule of the city for her daughter, who may never get to see it as she once did. What sets it apart from most documentaries about the Syrian crisis is its candid narration from al-Kateab, and her ability to capture the problems specifically facing women as they struggle to feed their children and keep them safe. Recently, al-Kateab and Watts spoke to Hyperallergic about screening For Sama and some of the creative decisions that went into making it so personal.
Hyperallergic: Did you have an intended message for audiences when working on this project?
Waad al-Kateab: People told us that — and I knew this from my own experience — people will not care. People will not come to watch another Syrian film. And I felt like I will do it anyway. I need to do it because this is everything for Syria, for Aleppo, and for me, and for fighting the propaganda that says that we are terrorists. I was like, I will do it, even if it will be just like a record for history. Now we have a lot of things to let people take with them from the film, especially now that we’ve started our impact campaign, Action for Sama. People are asking us, ‘What can we do?’ [Now] we have an answer.
H: You started filming back in 2011, when the student protests began. What inspired you to pick up a camera?
WaK: I protested at the second one at Aleppo University. I was a student … it was so obvious that one of the main things to participate in the revolution is to record these things. We were going to the protest, [and it] can’t be more than five minutes [before we] see the security forces coming and arresting people. Then, in the formal state [media], they were like, ‘Oh, there was nothing happening at Aleppo University.’ For us, it was like we need to record this because this is proof, [both] for us participating and for the other people who didn’t join this protest, who need to know this is happening.
And it was also for the world outside, because we knew that the regime is not easy to deal with, and they will start denying this. Then they started crushing this [movement] with a lot of violence and saying ‘These people are terrorists.’ If I didn’t film this, like many other activists, we would have lost it as a story.
H: Some documentarians don’t like getting too personal, but there’s no separating you from For Sama. How did you decide to keep so much of yourself in your film?
WaK: People have heard a lot about Syria before. They’ve seen it from a lot of different perspectives. But they’ve never seen it as one story from a person who lived through it all. When I was inside and when we were outside, everyone was asking me, ‘Why did you stay?’ One of the important answers was Hamza, who shared the same passion. For most of the audience, Hamza is like a rock star. It’s like they can connect with him so much more than me.
Edward Watts: It wasn’t completely personal at the start. That was a whole journey for you as well. That’s the mark of humility. Very early on, I think all of us on the team from the outside thought your story needed to be the heart of it.
WaK: We can tell the true experience of this and what we went through making the film, the pulling and pushing to find that balance between ‘Yeah, it’s kind of personal, but it speaks to the whole experience, or speaks about other mothers and other women.’
H: What were some of the conversations like when deciding which stories or footage to keep in or out of the film?
WaK: There wasn’t one conversation. It was finished, and it was still happening all the time. One of the main things was about how personal of a story we can work through. The second was how much blood can we put [in]. And the third thing was how we can make people leave [the movie] and give them as much honesty as we can, and at the same time be satisfied. We understand that this is not an easy film to watch. This is the truth, and this is what we need people ready to [see]. We want people to walk through this experience exactly as I walked, to get to the end and understand why we did this, that even if they don’t understand, they respect it.
EW: It was such a privilege to be able to collaborate so closely with the person who lived it … and then I’m trying to take that and find the best way to make it accessible and gripping for a Western audience coming off the Sunday streets of New York.
H: What was the process behind the film’s emotional narration?
EW: I think in documentary in particular, when you have this vast amount of footage, the film knows what it wants to be. Without sounding too kooky, your job is to try to tune in to what the film is and what is its best expression. There was all this conversation all the time between her and her daughter. The footage was infused with it. There was a moment when everything just fell into place. It was the key to unlock everything.
WaK: At the beginning, we had no idea where we would start or how it would end. We tried thousands of ideas. The [whole] team, from the editor to the executive producer, everyone had an idea.
H: For Sama centers the female experience of war in a way I’ve seen few other documentaries address. Was that a conscious decision when making the movie?
WaK: When I was filming, I wasn’t planning to show it. And then when we were doing this, it wasn’t a plan that we wanted to do [the film] with a female perspective. This was the truth of life. I was female, I was a mother, I was living through this. We weren’t trying to show people the female perspective; it was everywhere in this footage because it was my experience. This what I want to reflect to people in a way that they can really feel it.