Waad Al Kateab is an award winning filmmaker. In her documentary 'For Sama', she explains to her daughter why she and her husband Hamza decided to stay in Eastern Aleppo even after the siege. Now Al Kateab is using the film's momentum to raise awareness of the current situation in Syria.
Waad Al Kateab in her documentary says that she was compelled to keep filming. "It gives me a reason to be here. It makes the nightmares worthwhile."
"Whether I turn this camera off or I am filming. My whole life is behind this camera," says Waad Al Kataeb quietly on the phone from London to InfoMigrants. As opposed to foreign correspondents who came to Syria to cover the war for a few days only, her situation was "totally different", she explains. "It is not something I came to cover and then I am going to leave. This is where I lived, these are my people."Al Kateab went to study in Aleppo at the age of 18. It became her hometown and, as she documents in her film "For Sama," it was where, at the start of a peaceful revolution in 2011 university students like her were fighting "for freedom" and calling for the end of the Assad regime. Her surname is a pseudonym she uses to protect her family.
Fighting for freedom
Al Kateab tells her daughter Sama near the beginning of the film: "Back then, all we cared about was the revolution. [… ] Assad has been in power since your grandfather was ten years old." Her gentle way of telling stories and talking to children, as well as adults, provides a stark contrast to the horrors and brutality of the human rights abuses and war she documents throughout the film.
The joyful smiles of Sama and innocent songs about chickens are intercut with the chaos and panic of war. "Even when I close my eyes I see the color red," narrates Al Kateab as her camera pans over the blood on the tiled floors of the hospital, blood soaked rags and people. Their limbs and faces distorted and covered with blood. "Blood, everywhere, on walls, floors, our clothes. Sometimes we cry blood," Al Kateab says.
At one point in the film, people flood the hospital following a bombardment. She asks a little boy with huge tearful eyes standing alone in the corridor what just happened? He quietly explains that his "family are all dead." The next shot shows an adult man wailing and shaking his daughter lying on a bed at the hospital: "Wake up, wake up, wake up" he desperately shouts. Without commentary, Al Kateab depicts a double tragedy: the children have somehow been forced to accept the reality around them, while the adults are no longer able to.'Hit by a cluster bomb'
In another scene, children are painting a bombed out bus. Al Kateab asks the little girl next to her: "What happened to the bus?" The little girl answers almost matter of factly: "It was hit by a cluster bomb." Al Kataeb says she was shocked herself when the little girl came out with that answer. "I would never have imagined she would really know what happened," says Al Kateab. "I was behind the camera, just shocked. It is very weird and very sad and unbelievable really how they adapt to this world and accept it." Bodies in the river
Al Kateab explains that she filmed her husband Hamza from the beginning because he was "one of the few doctors who was also an activist." They started off as close friends and gradually fell in love. "He's the only one who puts me at ease, whatever the situation," Al Kateab tells Sama during the film as they are traveling to a Friday demonstration at the start of the protests.
At the aftermath of a massacre of anti-regime protesters on January 29, 2013, Hamza explains: "Today Aleppo woke up to a massacre. And that's putting it mildly," he says at the scene. Body after body is laid out on the floor after being pulled from a river.
"The initial forensic examination shows clear marks of torture on most of the bodies," Hamza tells the camera. Although the laid out bodies appear to be wearing some kind of khaki uniform, Hamza tells us "all the bodies were handcuffed civillians. Most were executed with a bullet to the head."
The khaki color turns out to be mud or sand from the river which has saturated the jeans and clothes of the victims where they were dumped. Mostly men walk between the bodies, crying, looking lost and covering their noses and mouths, presumably against the stench of the bodies on the floor. "All these people had opposed the regime. Most had last been seen at a regime checkpoint," narrates Al Kateab. Deciding to stay
"Your grandparents were scared for me Sama," says Al Kateab in the film, they wanted her to leave. Al Kateab and her husband however decided to stay. She explains on the phone that she had "so much to contribute". Hamza too choose the revolution over his marriage and stayed on in Aleppo even after his first wife left.
Kateab covered the battle of Aleppo for British TV Channel 4 and won an international Emmy for her work. When she and Hamza were finally forced to
leave Aleppo in 2016, she managed to leave with all the footage she had shot, putting together the film "For Sama" alongside filmmaker Edward Watts, also for
Channel 4. To date the film has won and been nominated for several
prizes including Best Documentary at Cannes in 2019 and several
Baftas in the UK in 2020.
Action for Sama
Kateab wants her film to create awareness and "push for accountability for war crimes" through her campaign "Action For Sama". "I want to spread awareness of the suffering of those living under
bombardment and support the heroism of Syrian civil society," she says on the website.
'I don't want your tears'
People's emotional reaction to the film is what she hopes will prompt them to action, but for the decision makers and those who have power, she expects more than just emotions after seeing her film. "Many people came to me crying and said they are so sorry that they let that happen. […] It shows you how many people care. But on the level of decision makers […] We have tried so hard to push for action, do something, to make sure these things don't continue to happen. […] If you are in a position where you can change something, I don't want your tears, I want you to do something, you can make a difference," says Waad Al Kateab quietly but firmly. She has played her film at the EU, the UN and to lots of decision makers around the world but still finds global reaction frustrating.
'We didn't care about any religion'While Al Kateab doesn't wear a hijab at the beginning of the film, she can be seen wearing one as the protests intensify and the siege worsens. "I wanted to reduce any risk I could face," explains Al Kateab. Only once during the narration does she nod at the "Islamic elements" who were taking over the revolution.
Al Kateab explains that she can watch all of her film today except the end. At the end, she and Hamza are forced to leave the Aleppo they have been fighting for. "Saying goodbye is worse than death," intones Al Kateab as the camera pans past a burnt out bus on whose side the words "we will return," are painted defiantly.
"Will you blame me for staying here?" Al Kateab asks Sama in the film. "Will you blame me for leaving now?" After a 50 hour wait in the snow, warming themselves over makeshift fires in bombed out buildings, Al Kateab films Hamza again. She asks him how he feels about leaving. A choice they feel forced to make. "Places are about the people," Hamza says, as a solitary tear rolls down his face and his eyes, always full of laughter, evade the camera sadly. Al Kateab takes a plant from her garden so that it can "grow out of Aleppo." She says goodbye to the home they had made together, the place where they were hoping to welcome their second daughter Taima. In the end, Taima is born in Turkey. Eventually in May 2018, the family make it to London. Today, Al Kateab is working in news for Channel 4. Hamza is going to "take a break" from being a doctor for a while and is about to start a Masters degree in public health at the London School of Hygiene.
Al Kateab says that she will show Sama, who is now four and a half years old, the film when she is ready. She says they still don't know how the experiences of war and siege will have affected her daughter. "We had a hard time just after we left Aleppo. She had a lot of nightmares. She is now totally fine and I hope she will never be affected but we know and understand that you don't know when these effects will come back. It could be when she is 8 or 10 or 20. We just need to be aware of this and try and deal with that."
Al Kateab says she notices differences between the two sisters and that it is important that they don't turn away from the effects on Sama. The family tries to focus on the future and the positives but "no one can ignore what happened to us."
Sama, Al Kateab says, doesn’t speak about Aleppo now, although she knows that is where she was born. "Everything we did was for you," says Al Kateab in the film. So that her children and others like them could grow up in freedom. It was a hope that hasn’t yet been realized. In London, Al Kateab’s daughters have English accents and she struggles to keep their Arabic up, she says with a smile in her voice.
'The people I filmed will never leave me'
"They are happy," she tells InfoMigrants, but there is sadness too, at the dream that Hamza and she shared for a different Syria. "The people I filmed will never leave me," says Al Kateab sadly as the film spools over some who died. Despite all the heartache, Al Kateab says that she "doesn’t regret anything," and that she would "do exactly the same again."
"I’m able to feel OK with everything in the film but not the end," explains Al Kateab. "We did everything to stay. We knew we could be injured or die but we never believed we would be forced to flee. Even after three years, I can’t feel OK with this." Al Kateab knows that returning to Aleppo is something "very far away. We don't expect it to happen soon." Even today, says Al Kateab, "I can’t believe we are in 2020 and people are still fine with what is happening. […] There are so many complicated things going on there but we are just trying to find our way day by day. […] In this situation you can't separate your personal life from the [political] situation. We were one of the luckiest families. We were able to get out all together. I have my husband, we have an amazing relationship. But you can't just think about this and forget about everything else. You can’t ignore everyday what is happening in Syria. You can’t not be affected by this."
are in the UK you can watch the film for free on the Channel 4