Film by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts has won documentary prizes at SXSW, Cannes, HotDocs and Sheffield
A grim consolation from Syria's devastating civil war is that it has produced some remarkable cinematic works of art, including the Oscar-nominated films Last Men in Aleppo and Of Fathers and Sons. The latest in what must be considered a sad tradition - given the hideously inhumane nature of the conflict - is the new documentary For Sama.
Syrian-born filmmaker Waad al-Kataeb and British native Edward Watts directed the film, which is now playing at theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, expanding to more locations in the coming weeks. The film won the top prize for documentary at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at SXSW in March, along with awards from numerous other festivals.
We're trying to give [viewers] that chance to go through this experience and think about themselves and their children if they were in such circumstances.
Unlike Last Men in Aleppo and Of Fathers and Sons, For Sama offers a female perspective on the brutal war. It's a first-person account from Waad as she turned her camera on conditions in Aleppo, beginning with the early days of the movement to oust President Bashar al-Assad. There was a sense of optimism then, later cruelly snuffed out by Assad and his Russian allies, who indiscriminately killed men, women and children as they obliterated the city.
Waad did not set out to be a filmmaker. In fact she was a student of economics when the war broke out. Almost inadvertently she became a citizen journalist dispatching reports to the outside world.
"There was no chance really to think about who are you and what are you are trying to do here. It's more about just to live every day, day by day, and think about 'I'm alive now' and... I should capture as much as I can of this footage," she told me during an interview in Los Angeles last week. She recalls thinking, "I don't know when I will be killed - maybe tomorrow, maybe two minutes later, maybe one year later. Just more about focus on the [present] minute itself... I don't know if I will get to the point of tomorrow."
Waad documented her life in the city, including her friendship with a remarkable man, Dr. Hamza al-Kataeb, a physician who set up a hospital to treat the rising tide of human casualties. Their friendship grew into love and the couple married - the wedding reception captured on video as the joyous pair danced to a version of the Willie Nelson-written song "Crazy." In 2016 they would welcome a baby girl, Sama, born in a city shuddering from constant bombardment by Russian warplanes and Assad's forces.
For Sama takes the form of a letter written by Waad to her baby daughter, a kind of meditation on the lives of mother, father and child as the city around them fell to ruins.
"I filmed everything as much as I can and all the time what's going on in my mind was. 'This is the last minute, this is the last video, this is the last story,'" Waad remembers thinking. "At that time I was thinking I should do something to [show] everything we went through, to make a story that people can accept and have it and feel that they can have that experience in one and a half hours."
For Sama gives a visceral sense of being in the midst of the destruction as bombs rained on the city, some of them hitting the hospital where Hamza and his colleagues worked, killing multiple members of the staff. There are heartbreaking moments in the film of children mortally wounded in the raids, their parents wailing with grief. In one unforgettable scene a badly injured woman, nine months pregnant, undergoes emergency treatment at Hamza's hospital. Doctors perform a caesarean section on the mother, but her baby appears lifeless. They don't give up, and a miracle happens.
"Actually, if you show those two minutes [of footage] to a pediatrician he will be shocked about so many wrong procedures that we did," Dr. al-Kateab tells me. "There was no pediatrician in this room... just a nurse and a doctor who had just graduated four years ago and an anesthesia technician. We did so many things - it's certainly in the [medical text] books but like from maybe 2,000 or 1995. It's all updated [since]... We did a lot of things by the old guidelines and very old guidelines, things that I had read in the book, watched in Grey's Anatomy," he adds humorously.
"Or heard from your grandma," comments Waad.
"And thank god the child lived," says Hamza. "The child felt like we were trying our best to get him back to life and they are good now, both of them [mother and child]."
As baby Sama grows she becomes almost a mascot of the hospital, bringing a measure of cheer to the fraught environment. As bombs go off she remains remarkably calm.
"You never cry like a normal baby would," Waad says in voiceover. "That's what breaks my heart."
Waad and Hamza faced the dilemma, as all civilians in Aleppo did, of whether to try to flee the city. To do that would be to abandon friends who couldn't leave, and to quit the life-saving work of the hospital. But it might mean safety for Sama. At one point they did go to Turkey with their daughter to see Waad's ailing father, but. incredibly, they returned to Aleppo at great risk. Only the complexities of war, the feelings of intense solidarity with those suffering in Aleppo, could explain such an action. Curiously, in the context of the film, it feels like the only choice.
"Before the revolution none of us has any relationship with the ground itself. We just wanted to leave," Waad notes. "And the revolution gave us that chance about being more related to the ground, to Syria, to our history, to everything, to the future even... This is our chance. Either we will be Syrians or we will be no one."
Eventually, with the "free" section of Aleppo reduced to a couple of blocks as the government forces tightened the noose, the young family fled. They were able to start the process of rebuilding their lives in London, with young Sama and a new baby daughter.
In the U.K. Waad began work in earnest on the documentary, joining forces with Watts, whom she met through Britain's Channel 4.
"What's been forged is a truly great comradeship, a truly great friendship," Watts affirms. "We had to get to know each other and trust each other, basically, trust each other's judgment. But I think from the first moment the thing that united us was the shared passion for what happened in Syria, passion for her story and a total commitment to do justice to it."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.