Hot Docs ’19: Waad al-Kateab on her message to her daughter in “For Sama”

As the Arab Spring gave way to the Syrian Civil War in 2011 and men began picking up arms, Aleppo University student Waad al-Kateab picked up her phone and began ...
April 26, 2019

As the Arab Spring gave way to the Syrian Civil War in 2011 and men began picking up arms, Aleppo University student Waad al-Kateab picked up her phone and began to record the devastation of the rebel-held city.

For the next five years, the 26-year-old Syrian filmmaker set about chronicling the female experience of war. The end result is al-Kateab’s debut feature For Sama, which hosts its international premiere at the 26th annual Hot Docs festival tonight (April 29). 

Directed by Emmy award-winning filmmakers al-Kateab and Edward Watts, the intimate 100-minute project documents al-Kateab’s everyday life in war-torn Aleppo as she navigates love, marriage and motherhood during the still on-going Syrian revolution. 

Through hundreds of hours of self-shot footage, For Sama serves as a filmed record for her one-year-old daughter, Sama, in the final days of the battle for Aleppo. It is a way for al-Kateab to explain to her daughter who her parents were, what they were fighting for and why Sama came into this world – in case her parents don’t survive.

The film world premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival where it was feted with both the audience award and the jury award for best documentary feature

For Sama is produced by Channel 4 News/ITN Productions for Channel 4 and WGBH/Frontline.

Executive producers include Raney Aronson-Rath, Ben de Pear, Nevine Mabro, Siobhan Sinnerton and George Waldrum. Dan Edge is senior producer.

Following its international premiere at Hot Docs, the film will screen at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and will have its U.S. theatrical release in July. The project will then enjoy its broadcast premiere on PBS ‘Frontline’ in late 2019, and internationally via British pubcaster Channel 4.

Realscreen caught up with al-Kateab and Watts to chat about For Sama ahead of the doc’s international premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto tonight (April 29).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

What was the genesis of For Sama?

Waad al-Kateab: I was an activist and started working as a journalist, starting with my phone at the beginning of the revolution in 2011, and over the years I was carried on some local and international channels. In 2016, I started working with Channel 4 News to cover some stories. Then the city was besieged and I was inside. During the siege, I was trying to document personal stuff with stories from the people who lived around me. I was really trying to document their whole lives: how the people are living, why they’re living there and, at the same time, my personal story: why I was there and what I was doing. Then we left Aleppo in December 2016 [for] Turkey. I came to the UK for a visit for the RTS Awards, and on this visit I met [Channel 4's] Siobhan Sinnerton, who introduced me to Ed who had the passion and experience to do something about Syria. We discussed the idea and after a while we met in Istanbul.

Can you take me through the process of creating and developing this film?

Edward Watts: Waad was filming for five years to gather all of the incredible footage and then we worked on it – it’s been two years almost, off and on, to shape it. It’s gone through many different iterations. When Waad arrived, she had hundreds of hours of footage and I’m not sure we’ve ever arrived at the final take. In fact, yesterday she sent me two clips I hadn’t seen before. It’s an incredible, complex, wonderful archive that we could take in so many different ways – you could tell the story of the city, the story of Waad, the story of the hospital. Essentially the two-year process was about Waad and I coming to know and understand each other and speak the same language. We bring different things to this film.

WaK: The reason I recorded everything was because I thought it was the only way to show this incredible life in a war zone – there were people who were trying to fight for a better life, for their freedom. When we met with Ed, he understood what I was trying to do. We were trying to find a way to tell this story to the world. I was very involved in the story because it was my life, it wasn’t just a film for me. I really wanted someone who really had the power to lead me and help me, someone who really believed in my personal story – why I was there doing what I did. The amazing thing was after we finished the film, the people who were with me in Aleppo told me they really liked the story. They told me “this is our story” and that’s made me really happy because we’ve tried to do our best to let people see what was happening in Syria.

Can you tell me about the challenges you had in financing this film? 

EW: We didn’t have any, actually. Channel 4 and PBS were incredibly generous and as the film stretched on much longer than the original schedule, they moved mountains to keep us going and keep things functioning. They were incredible in giving us the time and space we needed to find the film and get it to its final place.

WaK: They really believed in our skills and our thoughts about what we were trying to do. They would tell us to do what we think is best and then we can sit and discuss. Without giving us the space, the film wouldn’t be what it is now – they really believed in the story and me and Ed. They were very respectful with the story and my life, my experience in Aleppo. They were very supportive.

What were some of the production challenges that you encountered throughout the project?

EW: It always feels ridiculous to talk about [the emotional strain] when you haven’t lived through it. We would be editing in my house because we’d essentially run out of money, and there’s a train that crosses my house and I remember the first time Waad heard it her face went white and asked “What is that?” and I said “It’s just the Underground” and she said “It sounds exactly like a Russian bomber doing a bombing run.” The emotional charge that was around this material and story was something that I think affected all of us in the production and made it so much more imperative that we did Waad’s story and the truth of her experience.

  • For Sama enjoys its international premiere at Hot Docs in the International Spectrum category on Monday, April 29 at 9 p.m. ET at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox 3. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.
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