When the Academy announced its shortlist of 15 feature documentaries still in contention for the Oscars, one title on it was no surprise: For Sama, directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts. It is the single-most honored nonfiction film of the year, winning dozens of prizes at film festivals across the globe from Cannes to SXSW, Sheffield and HotDocs. Earlier this month For Sama won Best Documentary at the IDA Awards in Hollywood.
The Syrian-born Al-Kateab made For Sama to document the destruction of her city of Aleppo, decimated by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. The film takes the form of a love letter to her baby daughter Sama, born in the midst of the brutal siege. The ongoing recognition for the film has left her stunned, Al-Kateab says, because “experts” had assured her the documentary would be met with indifference.
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“We were told that the film will not be shown at all and people will not care and come to watch it,” Al-Kateab revealed at a Q&A at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas, where For Sama won the audience award. “So our expectation for the film was, okay, we are just doing the story to say what happened with us and that’s it. But really it surprised us that people really cared and [were] engaged and passionate to know more about Syria.”
Al-Kateab began recording with her cellphone in 2011, in the early days of the popular uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad. At the time, she was a student of economics, but circumstances turned her into a citizen journalist dispatching reports to news outlets in Britain and elsewhere.
“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,’” she recalls thinking. “I don’t know when I will be killed—maybe tomorrow, maybe two minutes later, maybe one year later…I was shocked I survived.”
As the relentless bombing continued, leaving more and more civilians dead and injured, Al-Kateab met a doctor named Hamza who had set up a hospital to treat the countless casualties. They fell in love, married and in 2016 welcomed their daughter Sama. The young couple faced a dilemma common to all who endured war in Aleppo—whether to flee, abandoning neighbors, co-workers and, in Dr. Hamza’s case, patients—or remain, in solidarity with the besieged. They stayed, even as Dr. Hamza’s hospital came under aerial attack, killing several members of the staff.
There are many harrowing scenes in the film, including one where a badly injured woman, nine months pregnant, is rushed into surgery. Her baby is delivered by Cesarean section but appears lifeless. Dr. Hamza and his medical team don’t give up, holding the infant by its ankles and rubbing its back vigorously for minutes. Somehow, the baby begins to breathe.
“There was no pediatrician in this room, there was no anesthesiologist…just a nurse and a doctor who had just graduated four years ago and an anesthesia technician…We did a lot of things by [outdated] guidelines, things that I read in a [medical] book, watched on Grey’s Anatomy,” Dr. Hamza tells Deadline with a laugh. “And thank God the child lived. 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].”
Touching moments in For Sama help bring home the human dimension of life in a war zone, like Al-Kateab’s uphill effort to keep her flowering garden alive despite constant bombing. And there is home video of her wedding to Dr. Hamza, where an unlikely tune plays during the ceremony, the classic song “Crazy” written by Willie Nelson—not the Patsy Cline version, but one by Julio Iglesias.
“‘Crazy’ sums up the whole thing,” fellow director Watts muses. “It’s like who’s singing? How have they got the Julio Iglesias version out in Aleppo?”
“We don’t know how we got that,” Al-Kateab adds. “We had no songs at that moment, and this was one of the songs that our friend had on his phone.”
“It was very hard to clear” rights to use the song in the documentary, Watts notes. “We had to go to [Willie Nelson] to request permission. He approved.”
As the Syrian government tightened the noose around Aleppo, reducing the “free” section to a couple of blocks, Al-Kateab and Dr. Hamza fled with baby Sama. Resettled in the U.K., al-Kateab began working on the feature documentary with Watts, whom she met through Britain’s Channel 4.
“We just had an incredibly honest, robust collaboration,” Watts comments. “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.”
At the IDA Awards on December 7, Al-Kateab received the Courage Under Fire Award, recognizing the bravery it took to make For Sama. She told the audience, which gave her a standing ovation, that her thoughts are always with the people of her homeland.
“Today there was another attack in Syria…There were more than 20 people who were killed,” she said. “This [award] is not just for me. I’m just one person who is standing here. But there are millions of Syrian people who are fighting every day for our freedom and for a free country. This award is for all of them…I was brave one day. I am not brave anymore. This is for them all.”
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