Waad And Hamza al-Kateab, Edward Watts, On Syria And Their New Film, For Sama

by Cyntia Biret

For Sama is an extraordinary journey into war through the intimate lens of a woman who, in the course of the grueling shoot, also becomes a mother. From the 2011 uprisings in Aleppo, Syria, to her daily life in an area under relentless siege, director Waad al-Kateab offers an unprecedented look into the lives of civilians held hostage under the oppression of what they refer to as “The Regime” — Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad regime — amid the shadows of global politics.

While the conflict is hidden from international news by the propaganda of the perpetrators, she establishes her headquarters inside the last standing hospital of East Aleppo, and records first-hand the casualties from the relentless artillery attacks, echoing the precarious pursuit of freedom of a community whose only means of resistance is healing and staying alive.

The intensity of the footage is as astonishing as al-Kateab’s audacity. Her incredible timing and persistence is even too unsettling for her own husband, whom she meets on site, Chief of Clinic and doctor Hamza al-Kateab. Scene after scene reveals a tapestry of emotions in a surreal mix of darkness and light, while celebrations bring a much-needed sense of relief — from her wedding to the birth of her first daughter, Sama.

The powerful storyline is the result of the collaboration between al-Kateab and filmmaker Edward Watts, whose celebrated work highlights stories of hope and humanity in the midst of the bleakest conflicts across the globe.

The film has already won numerous awards, including the coveted Golden Eye Award at the Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Jury Award at SXSW, and the Special Jury Prize at the Canadian Hot Docs International Film Festival. I met with Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, as well as Hamza al-Kateab, while the film premiered in Los Angeles.

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Syrian actor Hamza al-Kateab, Syrian director and producer Waad al-Kateab and British director Edward Watts pose with the Oeil d’Or prize at the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 25, 2019. AFP

CYNTHIA BIRET: Waad, when did you start filming this documentary, and why? How did it all get started?

WAAD AL-KATEAB: I decided to start filming a protest at Aleppo University in 2011, and I also filmed the background of these protests in a way that people were not used to seeing in the news. This became my first documentary called “The Second Castle of Aleppo.” I moved to East Aleppo, a zone outside of the control of the government, and gradually over the years I filmed more personal or general stuff, including people living in hospitals. I kept on pushing the record button for everything I saw, and stayed there for five years until the end, when we left. In 2016, when the siege happened, I was sending reports and stories for Channel 4 News in the UK for broadcasting on their daily program, and we were nominated for awards. Then the displacement happened and I came to London to meet with the Channel 4 News team. During that meeting we talked about a making longer piece, but we didn’t know what this story would be. They didn’t know that I have this huge archive of what was happening, so I told them about it and they suggested that I needed a partner, not only because there was a lot of material, but also because I had just left Aleppo, and it was difficult to deal with that emotionally. They introduced me to Ed (Edward Watts), and then we started talking about the footage, watched all the material and started discussing the story.

EDWARD WATTS: And then we worked together for two years putting it all together. It’s like a sculpture, you know. We had this huge, amazing archive with this incredible footage and we had to distill it down, down, down, to what you see today.

BIRET (TO WAAD): At what point did you decide to focus on your life?

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A bomb attack on a school in the Aleppo.
Getty Images

WAAD: From the beginning, because I was filming all the time. I wake up, I film. I have breakfast, I film. When I went to check my baby, I film. When I was pregnant, I filmed. I filmed everything, in addition to the attacks against a school, for example. I wanted to speak about the education in Aleppo so I’m going to cover the school journalistically while taking pictures of the children. I was doing both at the same time. It was very clear from the beginning that it was going to be my story because not only did I film everything, but I was also very close to the characters — not in a typical journalistic way, but because I was very involved with this community and I was trying to help turn their life around. I filmed in a very interactive and more natural way.

WATTS: You were just being yourself. (To me) Naturally, it was from a female’s perspective, because it’s just infused by her life and her way of doing it.

BIRET: What was your relationship with the people who didn’t know you? How did they react to the camera?

WAAD: They all knew me.

WATTS: In the hospital.

WAAD: Because I was living in the hospital, I was part of the staff.

BIRET: I was referring to people who were coming in for an emergency. For instance, the woman who lost her son. Did she know you?

WAAD: She didn’t know me.

BIRET: How did she react to you? Were the people that you were filming ever put off by you or said no to you, or asked you to stop filming? It had to be very hard for someone who just lost his or her son to have a camera follow her around.

WAAD: Yes I know. What I mean by “they knew me” is that I was someone who lived in that area, so I am not a foreigner stepping in. I am just one of them, you know. This woman came to the hospital to pick up her son. She was shouting, so I thought that she didn’t want to be filmed, and I put the camera down. And then she shouted again at me this time: “Film! Film!”

BIRET: You took a lot of risks in situations of extreme danger. What did filming mean for you? Was it a way of resistance? And what did filming represent for this lady and for others, especially in these types of circumstances?

WAAD: We were trapped in Aleppo. Even before the siege, we felt that we were abandoned by the whole world, and by our own government who was killing us, and that gave us the feeling that everyone was letting us down. So the only way you can believe in something is just to keep on pushing what you believe in, to keep on going. I know that this footage will not rescue me, but it is what will keep the story alive and preserve it. For instance, when that woman shouted, “Film!” she also said, “Let the world see that.” For her, even if she just lost her child, even if filming did not bring her comfort, or even if they didn’t rescue her, she meant that the world will know what’s going on. We need people to care. We need people to look at us, to see the situation and to feel what that means.

BIRET (TO WATTS): How did you get involved? Did you stay in Istanbul or did you also travel to Syria?

WATTS: I only got involved after Waad had finished filming, after these guys (Waad and Hamza, her husband) had been forced to leave Aleppo. When she came out, it was all just so raw, and she had this huge archive and no one really knew how to handle it. That’s when Channel Four News contacted me. I was only involved in helping her tell the story and craft the film. The amazing thing was all the footage she had filmed. And I have done a lot of documentaries about conflict. I’m the guy who goes into a country at war, and even if I stayed there three months in some place, I could have never achieved the level of intimacy and understanding than someone who actually lived through those things like she did. And then of course, the female lens. The fact that she was capturing stuff that a male just wouldn’t pay as much attention to. Frontline draws all the men filming. She captured all the textures of life. As soon as she showed me the footage I thought, wow, this is something truly outstanding.

BIRET (TO WAAD): Were you ever scared for your life? How did you keep going through all these events and atrocities? And in the middle of all this, you got pregnant and had a kid, and then got pregnant again. How did you deal with that?

WAAD: Everyone who lives in Aleppo is always terrified about when his or her moment will be the last. And also how they will die: will they be injured, or very badly injured, or will they be blown away in a quick death, or will they lose someone close to their heart. So this film was about all of us. But the fact that I was filming gave me a lot of strength, because I felt that I was doing something really important. For instance, in that moment when the woman was shouting at me to film, film, when I saw her and she had just lost her child, she appreciated what I am trying to do. She felt that the camera was something safe for her, and that gives you a lot of strength that sustains you for a long time. It sustains me while I am there at that time, because I am doing something very important for the people. I know that I could be killed at any moment, but it is also very important that we record this, because if all these stories didn’t come out, how would the world know what was happening in this place? You have seen the propaganda that Assad and the Russian regime were trying to do — they were trying to classify us as tourists, because we were in East Aleppo. They refer to all the children in the film as if they are tourists, not residents trying to survive. This is why it’s very important to let people on the outside understand that this war is not about two military forces fighting against each other. It’s about a fascist government just trying to destroy its own people.

BIRET: One of the most incredible scenes is the one that drew the biggest reaction from the audience during the premiere in Los Angeles. It’s when an unconscious pregnant mother is brought into the hospital, and Hamza, your husband, is trying to save both the baby and the mother.

WAAD: This question is for Hamza.

HAMZA AL-KATEAB: We had no idea if we were going to be able to save the child.

BIRET: Or probably even the mother!

HAMZA: At some point we thought of giving up trying to revive him. But the emergency room was empty at that time. There was heavy shelling in the area, and we knew that patients were going to be coming in. While we were waiting, we thought, ok, let’s keep on persisting to try to revive him, and it took something like twelve minutes, which is more than what you usually do CPR for a child. At about thirteen minutes on, I was about to tell everyone, come on, let’s leave him and stop…

WAAD: There were newly injured people on their way to the hospital, so he had to be available

HAMZA: Exactly. We were able to do it because the situation was stable at that time. Do you remember the staff, the nurse who was trying to revive him?

BIRET: Yes

HAMZA: The nurse was very passionate about it, so I thought, let him finish. And then, well, you know what happened.

BIRET (TO WAAD): While you were recording these incredible scenes with children, you were already a mother at the time.

WAAD: Yes I was. I had Sama.

BIRET: During the screening, people were holding their breaths, and some broke down. Everyone was rooting for the staff, and for the child. This was not only an extraordinary achievement in an emergency room, but also cinematically, as you had perfect timing. (To Hamza) Hamza, you actually built this hospital pretty much from scratch.

HAMZA: It was originally a private hospital, but when the Assad regime started shelling the area, the owners fled Syria, taking the majority of the equipment with them. So we started as a small clinic, and we had about eight beds for patients and that was it. Then we started having more doctors come to work with us, more staff, and we ended up with four operation rooms, including an the intensive care unit, three wards for children, male and female.

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Another hospital in Aleppo gets bombed, leveled, by the Assad regime.
CNS photo | Ammar Abdullah, Reuters

BIRET: At one point, you were the last hospital standing, but there were originally nine hospitals in the region. And then your hospital also gets bombed. When you traveled with your family to visit your parents in Turkey, they offered to take care of Sama for you, but you decided to return to East Aleppo with her. It was a very risky decision. Why did you choose to bring her back with you?

HAMZA AL-KATEAB: We had many discussions about this. When we were going back to the siege area, we thought it was going to be like another area of Syria where there was a siege that had ended after five years. So we thought that it would be better for our family to stay together, because for Sama to stay with my parents would be more difficult, and we could potentially miss her school years.

BIRET: You could have been separated for a long time.

HAMZA: Exactly. We didn’t know if it was going to be for one or two months or longer. There were 300,000 people in East Aleppo at that time, and we wanted to all stick together.

BIRET: One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the way people stuck together. When other hospitals were bombarded, their staff came to help you at the hospital. The strength and unity of their spirit is incredible.

HAMZA: The main thing was that we attracted people who wanted to help. We had people who came from the countryside and said, “We want to work with you.”

BIRET: They did it to help with the resistance.

HAMZA: Exactly. We all stuck together — with the families and with our friends and everyone else, even if we were from totally different backgrounds, we just became one.

BIRET: What was your reaction to Waad filming? Did she ever get in the way? Was it challenging?

HAMZA: The first few years, she did (laughs), mostly because she never stopped. She wanted to film anything and everything. Just going to the hospital, she turned on the camera. And I was like, “Wait! Wait! Wait!” And she replied: “This might be the last time I see you and I want to film it.” And I was scared, and said: “No, I want to come back!”

BIRET: There is the time when you actually realized that you fell in love with her after she started crying and you asked her to leave the emergency room. And you told her: “Don’t cry!”

WAAD: He was very angry. He said: “Stop crying!”

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Hamza Al-Kateab (in white) and Sama with colleagues at his hospital in Aleppo.

HAMZA: As the manager of the hospital, I am responsible for my staff, and they looked up to her like she is a powerful woman who knows what she is doing. She is away from her parents, and she is there for a cause, but they can’t just see us broken. We were broken so many times, but even when we wanted to cry I would say, go to your room, do whatever you want to do, cry, smash some things up, but then when you come back, put this little smile on and this will help us do everything together. We will stay together through everything.

BIRET: That must have been very challenging, especially while trying to save a child.

WAAD: At that time we were not even married. But as a woman, I can’t express myself the same way a man would. He didn’t want me to cry, but it’s very difficult to hold myself back in these circumstances. So I was angry and crying, but he didn’t want me to express myself in front of the others because if I cry, he will cry too, and then everybody starts crying and the situation would turn into a disaster. So I just turned around and left. And everyone held themselves in front of the others to help everyone stay strong.

BIRET: These moments of emotions and tenderness help bring a sense of relief to all the drama. When did you decide to use flashbacks?

WATTS: It was quite late to process, while we were trying to organize these huge archives. Eventually as we worked together more and more, we realized that there were certain key scenes, such as the wedding and the birth and all of that. Godard used to say that a story has a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. We realized that if you just laid it out chronologically, it was just a very simple path from happiness down to the darkness, and that was not the truth about their lives at the time. There is movement all the time between light and dark and happiness, and between sadness, laughter and tears. By doing flashbacks it allowed us not only to move between those emotional places, but it also meant that the audience could stay with the story, because if it was just like twenty minutes of darkness, it would have been too overwhelming, whereas if you move between the two it means that the audience had a moment to collect themselves after a moment of extreme violence or something. When we kept in the bits with just Sama’s face for between two and two-and-a-half minutes without an edit, it allowed the audience to take a long breath of relief — “Such a lovely baby smiling!”

BIRET: It helps you reconnect by thinking, “This could be my child!”

WATTS: Yes. Exactly.

BIRET: Can you please explain the line, “If you want to be safe, go to the frontline”.

HAMZA: The Assad regime wants to target people’s resilience and their will to stay there. The regime wants to make it impossible for its own citizens to live in a non-governmental controlled area. So their main targets are the neighborhoods: the markets, the hospitals, the bakeries, the schools and so on. There is an intensive targeting and shelling of these areas, whereas on the front lines there are “just” mostly bullets. In other areas they use cluster bombs and all those lethal weapons, so we literally had this saying: “It’s quieter there. Let’s just go to the frontline and just relax from time to time.”

BIRET: And in the hospital you never know when a bomb is going to hit, and you are busy tending to the wounded, whereas in the front line you can see the battlefield.

HAMZA: Exactly.

WAAD: The regime chooses to destroy and kill people, instead of having battles between the army and people fighting back. Because they want to have a bigger effect on people, their goal is to kill them, to eliminate them.

BIRET: If you show there is a battle, you risk attracting an international reaction and reaching international news. But when this is covert, it’s more easily forgotten, and that’s why it’s still ongoing.

HAMZA: You’re right.

BIRET: Ed, is this different from any other war you have covered?

WATTS: Yes, one hundred percent. It is so different. Number one, it was this amazing opportunity to work with someone like Waad because she was able to actually make it so real for the people there, and we worked very closely together. This is one of the reasons I cared so much about Syria from the start, because it is unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War, due to the sheer violence that the regime and their Russian allies choose to deploy against the people; the relentless misinformation and fake news with the intent to discredit everything. It’s on a scale that we have not seen before, for several generations; and because of the violence they’ve unleashed with impunity, it has rippled out across our worlds, you know. And something we always talk about, which is that these norms, these values that people used to hold, sort of like the basics of life — such as you don’t target hospitals, you don’t use chemical weapons — these have all been blown away, and they’ve been blown away in Syria. And if affects us all.

BIRET: Unfortunately, this went up another notch, even comparatively to the rest of your work.

WATTS: It went to another level. I feel like everything I’ve done in my life has been building up to this, and also to working with these wonderful people.

BIRET: There is a scene where one of the young daughters of your best friends is asking her dad to tell her a story, in the way a child would ask to hear a fairytale. Can you please talk about this scene?

WATTS: It was the young girl, Naya.

WAAD: This is the story the dad told his daughter: It was about a young boy who was eating with his family when he heard the sound of aircrafts. While he went to the balcony to see what was happening, the place was bombed, and he was trapped under the rubble. His family died. In telling this story, the father was telling his daughter what she should do if she heard the sound of aircrafts. So it’s a different kind of story that you tell your children to help them survive.

BIRET: It’s definitely no fairytale.

WAAD: Yes, but this is what you need to tell children in those types of circumstances so that they are prepared if anything happened, and teach them what they should do. For instance, Naya and my daughter could be in a situation where they are stuck under the rubble and they need to keep the hope that someone is coming to take them out, which is what he was referring to.

BIRET: Was there any time where it was too much for you, besides the crying, and how did you keep on going?

WAAD AND HAMZA TOGETHER: All the time. This affected all of us.

HAMZA: I was scared. I think that feeling, the importance of the cause you are fighting for, honoring all the people that were killed, all the people we’ve lost through all those years, that’s what kept us there. But that doesn’t mean that you are not afraid.

BIRET: You have to keep on going, otherwise you risk losing this battle, which is probably why it was so hard to leave.

HAMZA: Exactly.

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Waad Al-Kateab, her husband, Hamza and their daughter, Sama, review the words they painted on a bombed-out building.
Courtesy Waad al-Kateab

BIRET (TO WAAD): Did you ever feel any guilt from leaving? It had to be very traumatic, especially after fighting so hard to stay.

WAAD: Yes, and I still feel it today. I believe that everyone who left Syria has these types of feelings, mostly because everything you have seen in the film is still happening right now. There are a huge number of mothers and children still trapped in Aleppo, and Russia and the Assad regime are killing them every single day.

I wish I could be there now. The place where we were in Aleppo, we were very connected to the ground, to the earth. I just can’t feel that way anymore. But in making this film, I feel like I am changing the way that I am fighting for the people, because I am telling their story, and speaking about what’s going on there. But I can’t be there by myself and continue my work, while Hamza continues his work someplace else.

BIRET: Does Sama suffer from PTSD at her young age? How old is she now?

HAMZA: Sama is three-and-a-half. My other daughter, Taima, is two. Sama still has nightmares, but she is too young to express herself and share with us what she is dreaming about. But several nights ago she just woke up screaming, and she was terrified. I read articles about children from age two to three years old who suffer from PTSD while living in conflict areas, and they have those bad dreams about explosions and all of that.

Hamza, Sama and Waad al-Kateab in Aleppo.
For Sama/ITN Production

BIRET: Are you able to explain anything to her, despite her young age?

HAMZA: Since we don’t know what she is seeing, we don’t want to create more trouble if we explain something wrong. So maybe when she is four or five, when she can express herself, we can help her sort it out.

BIRET: Are there people who are still filming in East Aleppo at this time?

WAAD: There are still people filming, but I am not involved in the same way there. I am helping them connect with T.V. channels to set up interviews, and telling them how they can improve their work. But it’s not the same serious work I was doing in Aleppo.

BIRET: What would you want to tell your daughter when she grows up? In the event that the conflict is still ongoing, would you want your daughter to go back there and keep on filming? What would you tell her?

WAAD: First thing, I want her to fight for anything she believes in and to know that nothing will happen without sacrificing something. I do wish that by the time she grows up we will have justice in Syria, and that we will be back and will have started re-building our community.

HAMZA: The main thing I would tell her is to know what was going on in her country. In ten or twenty years, we don’t know what the history of the world will say about Syria. And really, as Waad said, when she believes in something, to go for it, with a partner that will also go for it with her (laughs).

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