For Sama: In Conversation with Waad Al-Kateab

Julie Luebken 20 October 2020
Image Credits: Time

I have never been as excited to open a Zoom link as for the Watersprite interview with Waad Al-Kateab. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, she is the producer, director and narrator of the documentary “For Sama”, which depicts her and her family’s life in Aleppo over the course of 5 years. In short, she is an inspiring woman whose authenticity shone through my laptop screen during the hour she was interviewed.

Waad’s story of the Syrian war is underpinned by her close relationships with the team at Channel 4. With Nevine Mabro, deputy editor at Channel 4 News, by her side, the two women shared the blossoming of their friendship. While in Syria, Waad gave birth to her daughter Sama. At the same time in the UK, Nevine was on maternity leave after giving birth to her first child. However, Waad’s story with Channel 4 goes beyond her proximity to Nevine. She expressed how the channel allowed her to be in control of her own narrative. As she arrived in London in 2017, Waad was afraid that her footage and story would slip away from her and into the hands of screenwriters, producers and directors that would have a more detached approach. As the process went on, she describes a high level of understanding, both in the general art of storytelling as well as the intensity of the footage she collected. Waad affirms that no other news network would have been able to go through the 500 hours of footage she presented to them and come out the other side with a story that remained personal.

“The personal is political” for Waad. While the story delves into the hardships experienced by her family and friends, never is the documentary detached from the cause Syrians were ardently fighting for. Throughout the years that she followed the war, Waad is portrayed in the documentary as a filmmaker, a mother, a wife and a journalist. The driving force that she describes, the reason that she persevered and stayed in Aleppo, is that she identifies as “Waad the activist.” She describes the start of her documentation journey. The streets filled with students from her University in Aleppo, calling for change and condemning Bashar al-Assad regime’s – the conditions Syrians had been subjected to for years. Waad’s goal, first and foremost, was to save the story and make sure that lives hadn’t been lost in vain.

A lot of the scenes in “For Sama” are gut-wrenching. Due to the fact that the documentary is so personal, the destruction of normality, family life and childhood innocence hurt almost as much as depictions of families shattered by the loss of a son, a brother, a nephew. “If you show death, you have to show life”, says Waad. In particular, she describes a very difficult moment where an injured pregnant mother has to give birth to her child. As she lies unconscious, the child is removed by C-Section. It is dead. The doctors frantically try different methods to revive it, employing any means necessary. After a minute of speechlessness, the spectator lets out a breath as the baby cries and opens its eyes. For Waad, the scene describes everything she wants to say about Syria but cannot put into words. The baby’s lifelessness represents the regime shutting the revolution down before anything else can be expressed. The awakening is the hope and continuation of life and struggle amidst brutal repression. Filming this was not an easy task. Behind the camera, Waad describes being overcome with emotion to the point of disbelief. As the baby cries for the first time, she checks behind the screen to make sure she isn’t losing her mind.

If the baby’s birth represents the Syrian revolution, “For Sama” represents a story many Syrians can identify with. The documentary has received an immense amount of international attention including an Oscar nomination. While this is clearly valuable to Waad, her most important audience is Syrian. While the film is banned in Syria, several illegal links and Whatsapp groups have been sharing it around and responding to it. Syrians are often present at screenings, expressing their gratitude at the telling of many people’s stories. The most touching Syrian response Waad has received has been from a 20-year-old man inside Syria. When the revolution started, he was just 11. After seeing “For Sama”, he wanted to tell Waad that all she and her generation had fought for will never die. The ideas and energy that invigorated the revolution won’t die and the regime can’t kill it.

Action for Sama was borne out of the overwhelming response to the documentary. I encourage everyone to watch the film and go to this link to find out what you can do to help: