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ScreenTalk Archive: Waad and Hamza al-Kataeb on For Sama

Woman in hijab holding a camera
15 Oct 2021
28 min listen

In this episode of our ScreenTalks Archive, we revisit a powerful conversation exploring 'For Sama's' intimate and epic journey into the war in Syria with directors Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, hosted by Krishnan Guru-Murthy. 

A love letter from a young mother to her daughter, the film tells 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 cataclysmic conflict rises around her. 

Her camera captures incredible stories of loss, laughter and survival as Waad wrestles with an impossible choice– whether or not to flee the city to protect her daughter’s life, when leaving means abandoning the struggle for freedom for which she has already sacrificed so much.

For Sama was the first feature documentary by Emmy award-winning filmmakers, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. It was awarded the Prix L’Œil d’Or for Best Documentary at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and also won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival.

For Sama is available to watch for free on Channel 4’s All4. Find out more about the Action for Sama campaign on their website. 
 

The Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast is presented by Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus Media. Listen to more episodes on: barbican.org.uk/screentalksarchive 

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever you find your podcasts. 

‘I want to save the narrative for her and for the next generation to know exactly what happened, which might lead them to accountability.‘

About Waad Al-Kateab
Waad is a Syrian activist and award-winning filmmaker. She became a citizen journalist in 2011, after protests broke out across Syria against the Assad regime, and in January 2016 she began documenting the horrors of Aleppo for Channel 4 News in a series titled, “Inside Aleppo.

About Edward Watts
Watts is an Emmy award-winning, BAFTA nominated filmmaker who has directed over twenty narrative and documentary films, telling true stories from far flung corners of the world.

Transcript

Ellen E Jones: Welcome to the Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast. Every episode we scour the Barbican's extensive audio archives in search of the best conversations about film so that we can bring them to an audience far beyond the soundproof walls of our cinema screens. 
In this episode, that mission has an increased sense of urgency, because we're talking about the astonishing Syrian war documentary, For Sama. Made and narrated by Syrian journalist Waad Al-Kateab, the film documents five extraordinary years in the life of her family and her country. Waad began filming in 2011, at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, when she was still a student at the University of Aleppo. Her camera continued to bear witness to the sustained bombardment of that city and the suffering of its people, with her reports sometimes appearing on Channel 4 News in the UK. But these were also the years in which Waad married her husband Hamza, one of the last doctors left working in Aleppo, and gave birth to their daughter Sama, to whom the film is dedicated. The conversation you're about to hear brings together Waad and Hamza Al-Kateab, Waad's British co director Edward Watts and her colleague at Channel 4 News, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who asked the questions. 

They discuss how a combination of the personal and the political makes For Sama such a uniquely powerful example of the documentary form. What it's like to adapt to a daily routine after living in a war zone, and what it means to prepare for a free Syria that is, in Waad's words, not if but when. Waad speaks to what it's like to collaborate with a filmmaker who has such a close relationship to her subject matter, and how he went about the near impossible task of selecting 100 minutes from 500 hours of footage. What actually proved impossible, apparently, was getting Waad to agree to his selection. As alluded to by many audience members here, watching for some it is an intense experience that brings up many emotions for the viewer, including guilt. Listening to this conversation will give some pointers for direct action and next steps. But Hamza also raises a disturbing point about the ongoing consequences of government inaction around the time of the chemical weapons attack in 2013. Some decisions cannot be unmade. I'm Ellen E Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks on For Sama, with Waad and Hamza Al-Kateab and Edward Watts.

[Applause]

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Well, look, ladies and gentlemen, this is very much your Q&A, but I'll kick off if you like. It's such an amazing feat, this film, and there's so much in it. Waad, when you were picking up a camera as a young student, what were you thinking you were about to do? Or were doing? Why were you doing it?

Waad Al-Kateab: Actually, we thought all the Syrians who started the revolution in 2011, that that will be around like, three, four months, maybe. And like, we will be free certainly before that is done. So the first point about that was the regime was denying the protests and not just in Aleppo, the whole of Syria. And we were seeing this in our own eyes. So we wanted to document this to let our people know. And we really believe that this has happened, and tell the word outside that this is what we were fighting for. And just like at the time, the situation went in a very different way. And then you've seen what you've seen in the film.

KGM: What did you think you were doing documenting it? That's what I often wondered, because we were watching Waad's material coming out and running some of it on the news as it happened. Why were you doing it?

WA: I wasn't stuck in the meaning of stuck. But I felt that I am there and I want to stay there. The only reason to gives me why I'm doing this just like to stay alive and feel that I'm alive. And through that I'm doing something really important. It's worth the thing that I maybe I will die for this. So I'm doing something really important. And I've seen people outside from the Russian and Assad's forces, which is saying that we are all terrorists, our daughters were terrorist and that baby who we've seen, who was just like born, like barely born, he's also a terrorist. And we've seen like, this is not the fact that what's happening on the ground. So just give us a reason to tell the story in the way that how we've seen that.

KGM: Hamza, most of the people left - but you stayed. You stayed with your family. Why were you staying? Why were you there till right till the end?

Hamza Al-Kateab: Like it just felt... The only question we had in our mind like why to leave, you know? Like we felt that we, if we just left all the sacrifices, all the people who were killed in In the hospital, and our friends and all of that, would just go for nothing. We just said at one point that we're tired that we can't do any more, and we just leave. And at the siege, there was more than 300,000 families. So when we decided to get back to Aleppo, but we decided to go back as one of those families where there is no difference, we don't have no privilege over the people of Aleppo, our own people, to just like, stay in Turkey or leave our daughter in a safe place. That was just one of them. And what happened to them will happen to us. This is what I mean about the sacrifices for all the people who were killed in Aleppo, and in Syria, for fighting for dignity and freedom. So we just want to wait till the end.

KGM: I mean, in terms of the film, Ed, I mean, it's a very unusual, creative couple. And they were there and filmed it. And you turning it together into this...

Edward Watts: Yeah. It's hard to summarise really the creative process that we spent two years together. I mean, it was, it was a real honour, to be honest, and a privilege to have the opportunity to work so closely with someone who'd lived through that experience. In the documentaries I've made before, you know, haven't had that opportunity. 

WA: And on the other hand... [Laughter]

EW: That's a good example of how this worked. She was like, you're wrong, I think, but, but really, what was so great was the fact that we, as you can see, had a very robust, real friendship. And we both shared the desire to make this film as as powerful as it could be, because really, what these guys lived through, what they did with their lives, and what we Waad managed to capture on film is unique, extraordinary. It's like no other archive of documentary film that I'm aware of. It's incredible. What you guys have seen the horror, and the terrible tragedy of the war, coupled with the intense humanity and all the best parts of human beings as well. That's what made it so extraordinary. So it was a real challenge just to do justice to it. 

KGM: Who'd like to ask a question?

Q1: Hi, I'm itching to know, most documentaries, sometimes at the end, you have the now section. And I just... all the characters I completely kind of fell in love with and connected with them. All the vibrancy. And I'm just kind of really want to know where your family are, where you guys are, you know, and what the journey is now?

WA: I will speak first about the staff of the hospital who were forced to flee out of Aleppo, they are now still working in Idlib. The hospital is set up with the same stuff, same name, of course hospital, and they still doing their job. And the other families Afrah and their kids lives now in Gaziantep in Turkey, and they're trying to adapt for this new life. We now in London, we lived here with our two daughters.

KGM: Hamza, do you want to add anything about being here yourself? From life now?

HA: It's just just so weird to... I will speak for most of the people who are out of Syria at the moment and lived through all of that. So for our family and the other family that now are in Turkey, it's really weird to get a normal life, which is like daily routine life. And when you had the opportunity to plan for more than one week, I would not say five years, but we didn't have the opportunity to plan for... it was very extraordinary to just plan what we're going to do next week, because we just were living day by day. And in addition of all of that, the same situation and everything that you have seen in the film is still happening in the last area which is out of the Syrian regime control, which is called Idlib. All the people who are displaced from their cities from Aleppo, that are South Syria, they all were evacuated and displaced to this area. And now it's been targeted. It was the most brutal attack that ever happened to an area in Syria. Since last April, more than 50 health facility were destroyed in this area. And more than 800 children were killed since last April. The number is more than the total of deaths in 2018. So the Syrian regime and the Russians just... because nobody stopped them and nobody has tried to stop them. They just like launching their massive and final attack to end the Syrian crisis.

EW: Could I just add one thing as well. It's so good to hear you say that, you know, because that is something that we really wanted the film to show because I think so many people in Britain, all they experience about Syrian people is Oh, they are terrorists or refugees. But actually what this film shows you is they are like us, they are us. You know, we are all Syrians, in that sense. You know, they share our values. They share our sense of humour. They were fighting for the same values that we all share, you know, before we even realised those values are at stake. And this is why it's so relevant. What Hamza is talking about, you know, these things are happening now to people who share our values. And it's not just a matter of, Oh, it's happening to those people over there. And we're okay over here. We have that shared humanity with them. And for that reason, we should be doing something more or trying to think of something more that we can do to help them.

Q2: I would love to know what Sama, what she remembers of Aleppo, and I'm sure, at some point in her life, she'll see this film and you know, both of your daughters. And the second question is, where do you go from here with your lives? Obviously, you've lived the lifetime of experiences. And now, I guess I'm sure ultimately, you'd love to get back to Syria at some point, you'd probably love to do medicine, you'd love to do films or what have you. But I'd love to know what's the next chapter in your lives? Because clearly you, you still have a great future ahead of you, considering all the things you've done. And the last question is for Ed, how many hours of footage to film did you actually have to go through?

HA: Regarding Sama, she, all the other children who lived in a crisis areas, not only in Syria, but like in Yemen and Afghanistan and all the crisis areas, they see nightmares, and they can't express themselves, because they just woke up afraid and scared, and just screaming and crying. And you can't tell exactly what they are seeing to help get over it. So we'll just waiting until she's maybe four or five years olds o she can express what she's seeing and then we can talk her through it and help her manage it. Regarding myself, I'm planning to do a Master's in Public Health, I just decided not to focus on the clinical medicine and go for like the health policy, health service management, that affects the community, rather than like on a personal level. So hopefully, the education I will have here will help building the health system in Syria, or at least for the time being in the non government controls area. And then hopefully, free Syria.

WA: I have also got a Masters in LSE to do Media Communication and Development, which is next year, too. And this is the same thing we've tried to as much as we can to improve ourselves here and try to think more about, like how to build for me like the media system, or the new media of that we can have in Syria. If - not if - like when we will have free Syria one day, and think about this time that this is what I need to do to the day that I will be back. And just more about now the film itself, we've going around with the film or sharing the story. We speak with people with interviews around the channels and with trying to raise awareness as much as we can about the Syrian revolution and what's happening with us as one family and the other people in the film.

KGM: Who looks after you? The two of you, who make sure that you're okay?

EW: Me!

[Laughter]

HA: I think we just got each other and we know that, like, I know that I can break down she can't handle it. And I think she knows that she can break down. I can't handle it. So we'll just stay to stick to all that together for on for the sake of the other person. 

KGM: There was a question...  

EW: I was just gonna do the hours question because yeah, I mean, we still don't know the exact total to be honest. She was breaking out clips only the other week saying, hey, why did we never use this? I was like, please, just no more footage. But it was definitely over 500 hours. I mean, one of the great merits of this woman who is a born natural filmmaker, as you've all seen - she filmed everything. She filmed herself peeling aubergines for two hours, which we had to sit through because she said it was very important. 

WA: It was!

EW: No, no it was great! [Laughter] I think we narrowed it down in the end to 300 hours that felt directly relevant that was also leaving the aubergines. There was also this Aleppo am dram like rehearsals which we had to wade through, but 300 hours though, of unbelievable stuff. Amazing, amazing footage. So as I said it was a privilege to have that incredible archive to work with. 

KGM: Anyone else? Yes.

Q3: My question is, I probably speak for most of this audience, watching that is quite an emotional journey. I think I spent a lot of it being both upset and angry, and also learning a lot. So thank you so much. That kind of reaction makes us to sit here and go, what can we do? How can we help and also just sit here in frustration our own sort of, I hate to use this term, but first world problems? Is there anyone that you think really needs to see this? And is there any sort of direct action that you think can come from this film because I don't know if you can sit Assad down and show it to him?

HA: Believe me, I sure he's aware of of everything. I would say that. Now we are out of Aleppo and a lot of the politics are saying that we are, that Al-Assad has won the war. He's now patrolling 80 more than 80% of Syria, and everything is back to 2011. So like we need to deal with it, like to be real about it. And like he's ruling the country now. And from my perspective, at least, it's maybe too late to deal or to do any action for the people who are in Aleppo, because they already displaced. It may be took a long time, even to take action for the people that are suffering now in it, but it's never too late for accountability that might happen after a year or three or five or 10. And the most important thing that the war that we're facing at the moment as Syrian people is the narrative war, because the Russian and the Syrian regime make it all about ISIS about jihadist. But when you hear about Syria, you just anything came to your mind is ISIS jihadists, Civil War, which is like Syrians killing each other, those savage people. And this is what just came to your to your mind. While obviously, it's not the fact. So at least I want after 10 years, when my daughter is grown up, and want to look back what's happened into her country, she's not saying that, oh, there was a civil war, and those like barbarians jihadis started beheading people. Because this is not what happened. I want to save the narrative for her and for the next generation to know exactly what happened, which might lead them to accountability.

WA: And this is really what every one of us can do here. Like everyone who's like a journalist, write about it. Write about what's going on right now in Idlib, which is for us, the urgent action to do is stop bombing hospitals right now, stop bombing civilians who's living there right now. And we're trying to build our impact campaign around things to do, to provide people with tools so they can do action. Actually, please follow For Sama film website, and social media, anything anyone can, like raise any awareness about this, like, please, do. We really need that.

EW: Yeah, I mean, there's a couple of things. One of the things, we did a screening in the UN, one of the amazing things about what's going on in the UN at the moment is because the Russians and the Syrians and member states where they have certain privileges, so even though they're the only people flying aircraft over these areas where hospitals are being bombed, no one can actually say, they're the ones bombing the hospitals, they have to use the passive tense all the time. Hospitals are being bombed, like it's being happening, dropping out the sky or the wind are knocking them over. And so one of the things that we're trying to emphasise is that there has to be this UN process and inquiry. And there has to be like pressure on the UN Secretary General, actually, that he authorises these kind of inquiries, so that they can go through that process and start attributing responsibility for some of these attacks. So that's one of the things and I think we'll post Putin a DVD for his birthday.

KGM: But in the meantime, is really important, as many people as possible in this country see this film. So when I say tell all your friends, tell all of them. Yes, lady in pink, right at the back?

Q4: Hi. I'm still quite emotional about it. I thought I will brave through a question. I'm quite curious to know, what it is that you would have liked to see during those years of support and just how inadequate you feel we've all been in helping whether individuals or governments? And if I may, the second question is a more personal question on what are the things you think have influenced your character in being so... having such strong values and having such integrity is to make those difficult decisions?

HA: I'll give you the answer tomorrow. [Laughter] I'll think about it!

WA: I will start with the second question, where part of this, I feel that what my parents grew up me on. There was a lot of things when I was so young. And we have a lot of like discussions about like, what's going on in Syria and what's happened. And it was all this, like, secret conversation, because even like your neighbours, or your cousins shouldn't know that you are speaking this with your parents. One of the particular things happened, which I felt that's shaped my character a lot. One of the things why I've taken a lot of decisions, at the end of this, was that when we are all 15 in Syria, we automatically be part of Ba'ath Party, which is the only party that we have in Syria, which is Assad regime family. And as I remember, when this is a very common scene, you've seen any Syrian who has, you can ask him about this, and he will tell you this. The teacher is coming. They give papers for everyone in this room and say, without explaining why these papers and what's inside, they just asked you like sign it and give it to us. And I wasn't really thinking about not to sign these papers. The only thing I was thinking that I don't know what does that mean? I need just to ask my parents about this, because we had that conversation before. And I've, like stand to tell the teacher that, can I take this paper with me, and I will bring it back tomorrow. And like suddenly this teacher like transfer to a monster, and start like shouting, and she said a lot of like, bad things. And then she kicked me out of the class first, and then from the school, and I went back home, like crying. And when I went back, I've seen my father on the phone with her. And when he closed the phone, he asked me, like, what happened. So I've just like, I was crying. And I've told him what happened. Exactly. And he's like said, Give me the paper. I did it. And he was telling me, if you want to sign it, you can go back to your teacher and tell her to give you another paper, and you can sign it. If you don't, so no one will force you to do this. This is one of the thing which until now, I can really feel that I know that my parents like rose me on something, it's really valuable. And this is was the only way for them to let me stay in Aleppo when the revolution started. Because the only way to do this was I was telling them, you grow up me on this. And I know that this is what I need to do. And they were just like, yes, do it. So I feel that this is parents issue. And that's why I felt so responsibility for Sama, that I need to take, even if it's so hard decision, but I need to take it so she will understand that when she will grow up.

KGM: I mean, if you think about the first part of that question, I think what's actually partly behind that, I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, is that you watch this film, as a Brit, sitting in London, or wherever you might watch it. And there's an element of guilt that you feel because you didn't always pay attention. You didn't always watch the news report, you didn't do anything about it. You didn't go on a demo, you didn't write to your MP. And this all happened, and it's still happening, years and years and years of this. So how do you feel about that, now that you're here, and living in a country that still sort of obsessed with immigrants? And Brexit?

HA: So frankly, speaking... If you want to hear?

KGM: Yeah, go on! 

HA: The British... to be frank, that after Aleppo, obviously, for myself, and for so many other Syrians, this is part also why you can think about it, why in conflict areas, where there's no justice, more extremists join the queue on being like extremists, because they want to find justice for themselves. That no one gives them justice, or they feel that there is no attention from all the other world about them. Nobody cares about their suffering. And so when we, out of Aleppo, during the first year, I was really angry from all the world that there are so many children were killed, there are so many people were killed and everyone was talking about democracy, freedom, one world, the big governments are talking about like ethics. And like, we know that like America, the UK, France, Germany, like they're controlling the world, and they can like, I'm still convinced that from day one, if they want Al-Assad to be down, it's just a matter of taking the decision. And after a while, and when we came here, first of all, I realise we're not the centre of the universe. And there are so many other issues that people are struggling in in their lives. And I was shocked that Syria is not even in the news anymore. And even if it was on the news, it was because like ISIS has beheaded someone, or there was an attack over ISIS, or whatever. So this is what the people of the UK were just seeing. And I was shocked by the reaction of the people after the screenings, that they really want to do something. They really don't know that this is what was happening. And this is what they like, the government and the parliament vote for not taking any action in 2013 after a chemical attack happened, because they don't want to be in another Iraq. Which is completely different than what was happening in Iraq. So I feel more responsible to share the story with the people. I'm still confident that the government knew exactly what's going on. And it's just a matter of decision when they want to take aAl-Assad down. But I think that, I still have hope that people still have the power to change. And this is what you can do is just to bring Syria back to the news. First of all, we talk about the narrative between your own people, and maybe also writing to your MPs, not once but like every time or before the election. What's your plan about Syria? What's your speech about Syria? What are you going to do about Syria? And this is what we do. Like make them think that the British people want to do something for the Syrians rather than just ignore them. And it's not important anymore.

WA: Like this guilt is really make me feel that I'm still a human being. And I'm still thinking that I'm caring, and I'm really want to do something. And just the fact that you have that guilt and I have it too, Hamza has it too. And all of us think about, like, why we are now here, why we're not there now doing what we should do the positive things about this, let's think how we can transfer this guilt or this anger to something as an action. And the great question that we have now like from you, like, what can we do for this? This is what we are waiting after every screening. We've seen how people already care about others, and they really want to make difference. And that's what we can do all so really, let's think how we can go for one step forward to do something for these people. And really, thank you for this feeling. It's really give us a lot of hope to continue what we are trying to do,

HA: Like imagine if in 2013, after the first chemical attack that happened in Syria, if the American and the British take a decision and then take al-Assad down and that's it like many other countries, not as a good examples, but like when they want to do what they can do it and they did it. There would be no refugees crisis. There would be no 6 million Syrian people living outside of the of Syria. There would be no ISIS because ISIS started at the mid of 2013 after al-Asad released most of the Islamic prisoners that he had. Most of our extremist groups, most of their leaders were in a prison in al-Assad's prison and they were pardoned in 2013 and then they started to all those like extremist militias. Imagine like there is no rising of the right wing in your country and in other European countries. Imagine if just those governments take the right decision at 2013 what life would be? 

KGM: That's a hell of a thought. We're gonna have to leave it there. Ed, Waad, Hamza, thank you very much indeed. 
[Applause]

EEJ: Thanks for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with Waad and Hamza al-Kateab and Edward Watts. What you've just heard is one of many fascinating conversations with groundbreaking filmmakers from our archives. To listen, rate and subscribe to ScreenTalks go to Acast, Apple Podcasts or your usual podcast providers or visit barbican.org.uk.

If you have a comment or a suggestion you can find us at Barbican Centre in all the usual social media places. Barbican ScreenTalks Archive is presented by me Ellen E. Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus Media. 

We'll be back next week with the team behind the Elisabeth Moss starring biopic Shirley discussing their 2018 experimental drama, Madeline's Madeline. Until then, be well and goodbye.
 

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