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‘For Sama:’ When Your Camera Is the Weapon of Choice

Fusing the political and personal, the documentary tells the story of Waad al-Kateab’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria

Directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, For Sama is structured as a love letter from a young mother to her daughter.

The documentary follows the story of Waad al-Kateab’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria—as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while conflict rises around her. Her camera captures incredible stories of loss and survival as al-Kateab wrestles whether or not to flee the city to protect her daughter’s life, when leaving means abandoning the struggle for freedom.

Within the film, she crafts a filmed message to her one-year old daughter to explain who her parents were and what they were fighting for. “This is not just a film for me—it’s my life,” al-Kateab explains.

“I started capturing my personal story without any plan, just filming the protests in Syria on my mobile phone, like so many other activists. I could never have imagined where my journey would take me through those years. The mix of emotions we experienced—happiness, loss, love—and the horrific crimes committed by the Assad regime against ordinary innocent people, was unimaginable… even as we lived through it.”

“‘At that time, the only thing we cared about was the revolution,’ al-Kateab says in voiceover toward the beginning,” recounts Guy Lodge. “She’s only 26 years old, but her delivery is weathered, wistful, cracked by the strain and terror of living in a war zone.

“It’s been a long few years: In 2012, al-Kateab was studying marketing at Aleppo University, participating in protests against president Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive dictatorship, unaware that marriage, motherhood and exile were in her near future,” Lodge continues. “It was during this early phase that she began committing her experiences to film, and footage from those student years captures a hopeful, communal sense of uprising, gradually chipped away by the relentlessness of al-Assad’s attacks.

“Gradually, al-Kateab realizes her camera—or a humble videophone—is her best weapon of activism, documenting atrocities and injustices from which enemies and even allies choose to look away.” To read the full article, click here.

“From the beginning, I found myself drawn to capture stories of life and humanity, rather than focus on the death and destruction [that] filled the news,” she continues. “And as a woman in a conservative part of Aleppo, I was able to access the experiences of women and children in the city, traditionally off limits to men. That allowed me to show the unseen reality of life for ordinary Syrians, trying to live normal lives amid our struggle for freedom.

“At the same time, I continued living my own life. I married and had a child. I found myself trying to balance so many different roles: Waad the mother, Waad the activist, Waad the citizen journalist and Waad the director. All those people both embodied and led the story. Now I feel those different aspects of my life are what gives the film its strength.”

“It was so important to be able to move between the light and the dark,” co-director Watts explains to Marcia Robiou. “We had a previous version that was chronological, and what that meant was you started in all of this joy and hope and light of the revolution. And then you entered this dark pit of the siege and it just felt very unbalanced as a narrative. The movement between the two time periods allows you to move through the humanity and get into the heart and soul of the experience.”

“It shows how any human being can live his life after having these experiences,” al-Kateab tells Robiou. “In each moment—no matter how dark—I always remember the good things. And from the good things, I always come back to some really difficult moments. So, it is exactly how my mind would work.” To read the full interview, click here.

For Sama‘s structure mirrors the chaos of the moments it captures, simultaneously connecting both her personal and the political past, present and future as she feels an affinity for her home while also lamenting the conditions they are living under,” says John Fink  “When she gives birth to her second child, away from her Syria she comments that she smells the city. For Sama is no doubt powerful in its immediacy and its unafraid to shy away from the gory details as families–including al-Kateab’s own–become casualties of war, her dreams deferred… [The documentary] is a harrowing experience and certainly one of the most essential films of the year.” To read the full article, click here.

“I want people to understand that, while this is my story and shows what happened to me and my family, our experience is not unusual,” al-Kateab says. “Hundreds of thousands of Syrians experienced the same thing and are still doing so today. The dictator who committed these crimes is still in power, still killing innocent people. Our struggle for justice is as relevant today as it was when the revolution first began.”

“This is the most important film I have ever worked on,” Watts says. “I have been following the Syrian uprising since it began, trying to tell the truth… that truth is embodied in the courage, honesty and altruism of Waad, [her husband] Hamza and Sama. They are extraordinary people, an example to us all in these days of great tumult in the world.”

“I felt a great burden of responsibility to the city, its people and to our friends—to tell their stories properly so they will never be forgotten and no-one can ever distort the truth of what we lived through,” al-Kateab says.

“Making the film was almost as hard as living through the years in Aleppo. I had to relive everything again and again,” she concludes. “Thankfully I worked with a great team who cared so much about me, my story, and Syria. [Edward Watts] took the burden I carried onto his own shoulders and, with his strength added to my own, we were able to turn the vast complexity of my life and footage into the crafted story you see today.”

 

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