For Sama: how a young mother fleeing Syria made the year's most horrifying war movie

Alex Godfrey
Waad Al-Kateab, director of For Sama - pbs

Waad Al-Kateab’s babysitter is asking for her WiFi password. She texts her back, apologising to me across the table in a London office – it’s the babysitter’s first day today, looking after the kids whilst Al-Kateab promotes her film. She had no time for WiFi pleasantries this morning, at home across town, where she’s lived for a year or so. Her friends joke that she’s moved from east Aleppo to east London. 

It’s not quite the same. Her daily concerns have changed, at least. In For Sama – Al-Kateab’s remarkable first-person account of life in the Syrian city, raising a baby amidst constant bloodshed, her voiceover provides intimacy and candour. “Sometimes we cry blood,” she says at one point. It’s hard to tell if she means literally or figuratively – both would apply.

For five years she filmed it all, from birthants to bombardment, the footage as personal as it is historical. From 2011 to 2016 she captured the protests and the devastation, filming herself, her family and her friends as they refused to leave, fighting for their freedom, their city, their lives.

Along the way she falls in love and marries Hamza, one of 32 doctors who remained in east Aleppo during the attacks, and manager of the only hospital not destroyed by the cluster bombs and air strikes. Much of the strongest footage occurs within the hospital, including the birth of their own baby, Sama, to whom Al-Kateab dedicates the film, addressing her throughout. It would have been easier – certainly safer – for her and Hamza to leave, to raise their daughter in a less volatile environment. But this was their home.

She seems serene today, in the flesh, but there’s an intensity about her – an anger about the ongoing situation in Syria, and a drive, which resulted in her filming as buildings crumbled around her, and which propelled her throughout an emotional two-year post-production process in London. Her values have been with her from the start.

“Since I was born,” she says. “I was raised learning about freedom and dignity and being myself. My parents said, ‘You need to dream of something, and do it.” She tells a story about being given, at 15, a paper to sign at school, inducting everyone into the [Arab Socialist] Ba-ath party – it’s practically automatic. She didn’t sign, because she wanted to understand it first, to discuss it with her parents. “Just saying to the teacher, ‘I don’t want to sign this, I will take it home with me’ – she kicked me out. When I got home she called my father and told me how rude I was.”

Her father put the phone down, and she cried, but he tore the form in half, telling her nobody could make her sign it. “So I didn't. I was the only student in the school not part of the Ba-ath party. I'm still not. So my parents gave me all of that. I became what I did because of them.” Her refusal to sign that form and her absence from the party gave her a reputation which “wasn’t comfortable, at all.” Throughout school and university, “if anything wrong happened, that was because of Waad,” she laughs.

In 2011 she witnessed one of the early anti-Assad protests, at Aleppo University, where she enrolled as an economics and marketing student. With the revolution, she and her friends thought they could change the world: “Finally we felt like we had a home we were ready to die for,” she says in the film. At that protest though, people were attacked and arrested, and when a team from a local television channel arrived they were told nothing had happened. “We needed to create evidence of what was going on,” says Al-Kateab now, explaining why she started filming, initially on her mobile phone, later on cameras.

Waad Al-Kateab with Sama in Aleppo

She wanted documentation and, facing death at any moment, she was compelled to celebrate life. If she did die, she’d leave a record. Some of her friends were irritated by her constant camerawork, until one of them was killed by a bomb strike. Suddenly, footage of happier times was invaluable. From then, they encouraged her to film everything. At one point during the film, when a woman’s young son is killed, Al-Kateab thought she should stop recording, but the hysterical woman implores her to do no such thing. “Film me!” she screams. “Let the world see what’s happening!”

One of the strongest sequences involves two young brothers facing the worst as their other brother is fatally injured. It’s heartbreaking. “I was thinking, ‘Tomorrow this will be Sama,’” says Al-Kateab, explaining how she retained composure whilst filming such material. “I thought, ’This mother is me – I could be next. The hospital could be attacked and we would all be killed.’ I was there to do this. If I didn't film those three brothers, how would I have been useful for them? It didn’t matter what I was feeling. A mother lost her child.”

Also, she says, she had to remain level-headed to ensure such footage was professional, as it needed to make its way to a TV channel. In 2015, as a citizen journalist, Al-Kateab had begun filming reports for Channel 4 News’ Inside Aleppo series. The footage needed to be broadcast quality, because broadcasting it was now the priority: the prospect of the outside world seeing what was happening gave her hope for change. She won various journalism awards for her dispatches, and an Emmy.

Waad Al-Kateab’ making For Sama

Al-Kateab and her family left Syria reluctantly at the end of 2016, forced to flee rather than surrender when the government recaptured the city from the rebel forces. She smuggled all of her footage out on hard drives underneath her coat, and they spent a year in Turkey before being granted asylum in the UK. Channel 4 had introduced her to award-winning English filmmaker Edward Watts, who has spent over a decade covering conflict zones and had wanted to make a film humanising what was happening in Syria. A commissioning editor asked Al-Kateab if she had any footage that hadn’t been used on the news. Yes: she had somewhere between 300 and 500 hours worth.

“No one knew she had this amazing archive until after she left. When I watched it I thought, ‘Look at what this amazing woman has done,'” says Watts, who began assembling the footage with her. Despite all of his experience, he was unprepared for what he saw – both the tenderness of Al-Kateab’s filming, and the shock of the more extreme sequences, including bodies being fished out of a river after a massacre, and piles of dead kids outside a door.

“I’ve watched the three brothers scene probably 10,000 times,” he says, “and it still makes me cry.” About two-thirds through the editing process, Watts had the idea to have the film be a letter for Sama, hence Al-Kateab’s gentle voiceover. She was resistant at first. “Through the whole process,” says Watts, “I'd say, 'We need it to be about you,' and she'd say 'It wasn't about me. Because it wasn't just me in there, it was everybody, it was the whole city, the whole country.'”

A scene from For Sama

When he asked her to provide the final voiceover, he says, “it took amazing courage on her part to go into that emotion, deep in. It was so hard for her.” When she showed the film to her friends, says Watts, Al-Kateab felt comfortable. “They said, 'Yes, it was your life, but it was all of our story.”

I ask Al-Kateab how it feels to not be facing death at every second. “I'm so surprised, as are many people around me who lived through that experience, at how balanced we are. We're not really damaged, as we should be. We're surprised at how well we are. There are still huge things to fight for,” she says, most importantly the situation in Idlib, 40 miles southwest of Aleppo, which is mirroring what was happening there. “There’s death all the time. But of course at the same time you think, 'Now I'm living here, I need to start my new life, with the kids, nursery...' Everything seems easy. When I see people complaining about something I feel, 'That's easy. That's okay.'”

She doesn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder, she says, because that would suggest the experience is over. “And I feel like I'm still there.” Which ordinarily would suggest that she may well have PTSD, but she says it’s because the film is keeping her ensconced in it all. “After I left Aleppo, we started doing the film, every day working on the same material. Then when we finished I thought, 'Now I can take one step back' – but I was shocked to find that no, I can't, because I have to do this publicity.”

Despite her stability, Hamza has said his wife has been having nightmares since Aleppo. She has been to therapy, she says. “Many times. And it didn't work. I felt bad for the therapist when I was there. Because it doesn't help.” As long as the situation continues, she says, particularly in Idlib, nothing will help. “People we know are being killed. It's still there. We need at least one step of accountability. When the war is over we can speak about PTSD.”

Sama, now three and a half, might be suffering from PTSD herself, Hamza has said, as she’s also been suffering nightmares. Sometimes at night she wakes up screaming. But otherwise she is well, at nursery in London, speaking both English and Arabic – it’s heartwarming to see, on Al-Kateab’s Instagram, photos of Sama and her baby sister playing together. She’s seen the film many times over via osmosis - for two years Al-Kateab tinkered with it on her laptop, and when she sees herself on screen she shouts her name.

Sama in Aleppo hospital with her father, Hamza

Al-Kateab has shown the film to Sama’s six-year-old friend Naya, who was with them in Aleppo. As she was old enough to remember being there, and had questions. “The film is a very good way to make her understand what happened,” says Al-Kateab. “Whatever she asks us, we answer.” When Sama is older, they’ll have those discussions too.

When it was suggested Al-Kateab meet Watts, she decided to do make the film so that everybody could understand what had been happening, and what is still happening in Idlib. “For an hour and a half, you can see what it looks like,” she says. “So there's no chance to say, 'We don't know what to do.' You need to do something.” She wants government action. She and Watts screened it for the UN, and are hoping to do the same for the US Congress and the UK Parliament. “This is the last chance to do something,” she says. “Because if people don't do anything, then what?”

She hopes the film will shine a light on displacement, to show that we could all be refugees. “They're the same as your neighbours, teachers, friends,” she says. “These people are not aliens. They're normal people.” Soon, her work on the film will finally be done. She has mixed feelings about that. “Me and Hamza and others, we're afraid of the time when we’re relaxed and can think. How will we process everything that's happened? “But for now I'm busy, so I'm okay,” she laughs. “I feel I'm doing something a little important, so I'm okay.” It is important – she’s already made a difference.

“If you're still on the ground, it's nothing,” she says, batting away the notion. “You look at the situation in Idlib, with Russia and the regime still attacking Idlib, people being killed, the same experience – nothing has really changed. But we keep going.” And she is encouraged by the response For Sama has had around the world. “The film’s audiences are gradually building knowledge and understanding,” which gives her hope, she says. It’s doing something. “Yeah. If I didn't have that faith I would not be sitting here now speaking to you. Really, I'd be killing myself somewhere. Because we need to continue. I'm alive for a reason, and the reason is this film.”

She and Hamza are desperate to return home, for the regime to end, for her family and friends to rebuild their life in Aleppo. Until then she plans to continue working here. When her duties are done with the film, she’ll be back at Channel 4’s news-desk. What does she want to do? “To cover things other journalists don't feel are important. I’ll start with Syria, and places where I understand the situation. If a place needs it, I will be there.”

For details on nationwide Q&A previews of For Sama go to forsama.com. In select cinemas from September 13, then screening on Channel 4 in the autumn