Waad al-Kateab has to be the only director in Cannes who didn’t originally set out to make a film. “When I was first filming there was no plan at all, except to survive,” she remembers. “I just shot daily life.”
Al-Kateab, now 28, was a student and an aspiring journalist when in 2011 she started filming the world around her in Aleppo. She made it safely out of Syria in December 2016 with her husband Hamza, a doctor; her infant daughter Sama; and 300 hours of footage she had recorded of family, friends and neighbours during life under siege.
“Most films are trying to present people as victims or heroes. I was filming myself and people around me as normal people, we didn’t know how this would end up.”
She even had the thought that the footage might outlive her. “When the siege happened I thought maybe I won’t use this for a film, but I hope someone will use this footage someday even if I don’t survive.”
She and her family (including a second daughter) are now settled in London, where she was introduced by Channel 4 News to For Sama’s co-director Edward Watts, who collaborated with al-Kateab to help shape that huge archive of material into a very powerful, personal documentary, telling her own personal story, as a mother talking to her young daughter. It’s a rare female perspective in a war zone.
For audiences desensitized to seeing footage on the news (some of al-Kateab’s footage had been used by Channel 4 news reports) or from more journalism-style films, Watts knew that “by framing it as you’re telling a story to someone, that elevated it to true cinema.”
Cannes agreed it was cinematic – the film is screening on May 15 in Cannes Official Selection as a special screening. Al-Kateab says it is “so special” to be invited to Cannes also hopes the screening here can help raise awareness. “I really hope that it sheds light on the reality of what’s happening,” she says.
Watts also convinced al-Kateab that she had to let herself be the center of the story, even though she says she usually prefers “to be more anonymous.” Watts knew that seeing an intimate family story would help the Western audience relate. “Everyone always responds to interpersonal tales, and [Waad’s story] is touching these epic themes about love, motherhood, difficult choices, following the path of your soul compared to the path of personal protection and safety. That’s an elemental journey that everyone goes on.”
Although she and her family have come out of the trauma to have a mostly settled life in the UK, she doesn’t want people to just think the film is a typical happy ending. She says, “It’s not about one family and a happy ending for Sama, it’s about families still being bombed or killed.”
Audiences have been very moved by the film at its world premiere at SXSW (where it won the grand jury prize for best documentary and the audience award) and later at Hot Docs. As she says, “The main goal of what we are trying to do, with all the screenings, is to shed light that three million people are still living in the same situation.”
The film doesn’t shy away from images of death and destruction, especially in the hospital where Hamza works, but they also knew they couldn’t show the full extent of the horrors on screen. “We had a lot of discussion about this, you can’t avoid for people to see this. But also we were very careful not to make people too upset,” she says.
The two directors started out as strangers but have ended up as close collaborators after working together for two years. Watts had never been to Syria although he is well versed in Middle East conflicts and his past films include the Emmy and BAFTA nominated Escape From Isis. Al-Kateab was coming out of trauma and also adjusting to life in the West. Watts recalls, “She’s a Syrian woman and I’m a British man so we are bringing different perspectives, the male-female dynamic can also be a real boost for creativity.”
Watts wanted to reassure al-Kateab that he wasn’t stepping in to take control, but rather than to collaborate. “There is a long history of people going into Syria to capture footage and then spiriting that away for their own aggrandizement. I had to help Waad realise I wanted to help her make the best story and accessible for western audiences, for audiences who might be fatigued by Syria. She had to be a big part of that.”
“We could have some very robust conversations,” Al-Kateab recalls. They were soon agreeing most of the time about what scenes had to be left on the cutting room floor.
Watts says the end result is “a story about the core of human beings transcending political and geographical context. This is not just another film about Syria, this is a film about you, whoever you are, and what’s in your soul.”
The film – backed by Channel 4 News, ITN and PBS, will hit US cinemas at the end of July with potential for a UK theatrical release as well. The shorter TV version will be shown on Channel 4 in the UK and PBS’ Frontline strand in the US later in the autumn. Autlook is handling international sales.
Watts knows the film’s unique character-driven angle can help Western audiences relate to the crisis. “I hope people just see human beings going through an extraordinary experience. It’s about a woman, a mother, ti’s stuff we’ve not seen about conflict zones. It’s unique in it’s humanity.”
And al-Kateab hopes that the immersive experience of watching a film can even make more of an impact than her news reports. “Maybe this film can touch some people at some points. It could be something to make [audiences] push for a solution or help people still inside Syria.”