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‘For Sama’ filmmaker captures the pain and destruction of war in Syria

Waad al-Kateab films the ruins of a building destroyed by bombing in besieged east Aleppo, Syria.
Waad al-Kateab films the ruins of a building destroyed by bombing in besieged east Aleppo, Syria for the Oscar-nominated documentary, “For Sama.”
(Abd Alkader Habak/PBS Distribution/Frontline)

It’s a few days after the Oscar nominations, and Waad al-Kateab, who co-directed “For Sama” with Edward Watts, estimates she’s seen her children for less than two hours since the announcement. It’s been a whirlwind few months for Kateab, who has created a home here since fleeing Syria at the end of 2016. “For Sama” became the first documentary to win best British Film at the British Independent Film Awards in December and it recently made history by earning four nominations for the 2020 British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, making it the most-nominated documentary in BAFTA history. And now the film is up for best documentary at the Oscars.

“Everything I went through while I was doing the film — I didn’t expect to do a film, even — to be here now nominated for an Oscar?” says Kateab, sitting with Watts in the Channel 4 offices in London. “And after everything I’ve seen and I’ve witnessed and I’ve experienced — I feel that, although I came from nowhere with no experience and no big budget, everything I’ve been through through the years, I never knew what that meant until now. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I really did something.’ ”

Kateab started shooting footage in Aleppo in 2011, first using her mobile phone and then using a small handheld camera. Originally, she wanted to document the protests against the Syrian regime like many activists in the city, but she found herself filming more and more, eventually learning to distance her personal experiences from footage of current events.

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“It wasn’t actually helpful to the cause of the revolution itself because when I started filming I couldn’t separate myself from the events,” she says. “I know when you are a filmmaker you shouldn’t put yourself inside the event. But I could not do that. I was excited about the revolution, so I was shouting and filming at the same time. So all my footage in the first year couldn’t be used to upload to YouTube because the security forces could identify me by my name or my voice or whatever. So I just kept it as an archive.”

As the events of the Syrian civil war went on, Kateab continued documenting, filming the bombs and the violent aftermath in the hospital where her husband, Hamza, worked. She followed the lives of her fellow Syrians and kept the footage on flash drives and hard drives. She got a better camera — a Canon 550 — and borrowed drones. By the time she, Hamza and their baby daughter, Sama, were forced to leave Aleppo, Kateab had over 500 hours of footage on 12 hard drives, which she smuggled out of Syria and across the Turkish border.

“I put them all in one backpack,” she remembers. “I was three months pregnant with Taima, so I had a little bit of pregnancy, and it was December, so very cold. I wore the backpack backwards over my stomach and put my big coat over it and then Sama was sitting over all of this. That’s when we crossed the border. I didn’t know what to do.”

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She adds, “I knew it was so important, and I knew it would be something, but I had no idea what this thing could be.”

Once Kateab arrived in Turkey, Channel 4 expedited U.K. visas for her and her family, bringing her in for a meeting in February 2017. The filmmaker had been sending footage to Channel 4 for their series “Inside Aleppo” and the original thought was to make a longer news piece with her footage. But it soon became clear that this could be a bigger project. She and Watts spent two years going through footage and determining the best way to tell the story (“We went on a journey,” Watts says, laughing). Eventually, the pair decided to put Sama at the center and create a nonlinear narrative that balanced despair and hope.

“The film has some horrible, very distressing scenes in it, but if you can believe it, it’s on the gentler scale in terms of the scale of injuries and some of the tragic events Waad had captured,” Watts notes.

Trailer for the Oscar-nominated documentary, “For Sama.”

“What you’ve seen in the film is literally less than 10% of what the real situation is and the real footage I have,” Kateab adds. “And I’m just one person. Imagine there are more hospitals in the city and other people who filmed more in other places. This is a little bit of the real situation.”

Kateab, who is still playing with ideas for her next film, has been a beacon of hope in an awards season that lacks diversity, particularly in terms of female filmmakers and cinematographers. She says she’s been surprised by the lack of gender parity in Hollywood but feels that the documentary category at the Oscars showcases the potential for more films made by women to get the spotlight.

“This journey was quite an amazing journey, but at the same time it was quite shocking on different levels,” she says. “Seeing the big machines and the money and how much a film costs. You could help all of Syria with this money. I wish they can see the film without knowing who is the director or who is the producer. Just see the film purely without anything.”

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