Breaking through, pt. 3: Waab al-Kateab on Syria and political filmmaking

As recent studies concerning the sustainability of carving out a career in documentary filmmaking have made clear, it’s not a line of work for the faint of heart. But simultaneously, ...
May 29, 2019

As recent studies concerning the sustainability of carving out a career in documentary filmmaking have made clear, it’s not a line of work for the faint of heart. But simultaneously, with more platforms and audiences hungry for content and new opportunities for funding and distribution emerging, perhaps it’s never been a better time for passionate creators to enter the fray. In this four-part series, Realscreen spotlights several directors who have taken the plunge and are breaking through with their early projects, including Waab al-Kateab. You can also read our previous profiles of Nanfu Wang and Bing Liu.

Major credit: For Sama (with Edward Watts)

Since the Arab Spring gave way to the Syrian Civil War in 2011, citizen journalist Waad al-Kateab (an alias) has given witness to the atrocities of a Syrian city under siege.

Al-Kateab’s cameras have captured the horrors of war from the frontline. She has seen the destruction of Aleppo, her home. She has seen mothers burying their children. The majority of her reports for Channel 4 News in the UK have come from within the emergency room where her husband Hamza (also not his real name), a doctor, worked. Her intimate debut feature, For Sama, follows a similar pattern by documenting the female experience of living in an active war zone. Filmed over the course of five years, For Sama depicts the filmmaker navigating through love, marriage and motherhood during the revolution in Aleppo.

What was the genesis of For Sama?
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, 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 commissioning editor for news and current affairs] Siobhan Sinnerton, who introduced me to Ed [co-director Edward Watts] who had the passion and experience to do something about Syria. We discussed the idea and after a while we met in Istanbul.

From my understanding, you had no previous formal training as a filmmaker. Can you tell me about those early days and the difficulties you faced?
In 2011 I started with my phone. Gradually I had a camera and some training from a local station in Syria. I tried to teach myself how to use this [camera], and friends around me were sharing about our experiences. I had an illegal version of Avid — we were just trying to do anything that would be useful. At that time I really learned to use the camera but my experience wasn’t academic, it was just about problem solving.

What advice do you have for up and coming filmmakers on how to break through?
The only thing I would say is to believe in what you’re trying to do. [I had] the belief that this could save me, or even if it didn’t save me, it would make an impact on my life or the cause I was fighting for.

This story first appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Realscreen Magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.