She documented human history in For Sama, but for Oscar-nominated Waad Al-Kateab, the fight continues until Syria is free and justice is served.
Waad Al-Kateab is sitting in the Channel 4 news offices in London. Her hair cut in a neat, long bob, she’s wearing a floral summer dress while the bright morning sun shines through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her. She looks like any ordinary 29-year-old woman. Yet she’s anything but. In 2011, Al-Kateab was an activist with a camera who went on to film one of the most important documentaries of the 21st century: For Sama. The film spans five years in Syria, starting with the peaceful protests against president Bashar Hafez al-Assad, through the Arab Spring and, ultimately, Al-Kateab being forced to flee the country of her birth in 2016. Unlike some war documentaries, For Sama reveals the full spectrum of humanity beyond the frontlines. While it provides a raw, inside perspective of the horror and systematic attacks on civilians, it also underscores moments of joy. We see Al-Kateab marry Hamza, a doctor who built the hospital in Aleppo where most of the footage is filmed; we witness baby Sama enter the world, and we watch friends and strangers become one community amid darkness and despair.
Al-Kateab, a young filmmaker and citizen journalist who moved to Aleppo to study in 2009, always kept her Sony camcorder rolling, filming approximately 500 hours of footage. It took two years for her and co-director Edward Watts – who she met through her work as journalist for Channel 4 – to cut it down to a 95-minute documentary. For Sama went on to achieve global acclaim, receiving an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature and winning best documentary at this year’s Bafta awards (where it also set a record for most nominated documentary), as well as four British Independent Film awards. The recognition is testament to Al-Kateab’s talent for showing the human story that so many governments still choose to ignore. Yet, a year after the release For Sama, there is a look of pain and sadness in her eyes. “Nothing has changed in Syria. It’s still happening,” she says. While news coverage of the civil war has decreased and the fanfare surrounding the film has slowed down, the crisis hasn’t ended. “There are still people in Aleppo being shelled and bombed.”
Does she feel guilty for leaving? Her body closes in on itself; she folds her arms and her eyes well up. “If we were there, we could help a little,” she says, her voice faltering. “One day I risked my life and went to Aleppo. I felt it was the right thing to do. Now, I know it’s the right thing to do but I feel I’m not able to do this. I’m not the same person who left the city in 2016. It’s confusing and the guilt is something I don’t expect I will get away from.” Of course, if she hadn’t left Aleppo, fleeing after Russia threatened to bomb the last hospital where they were working, For Sama may never have reached the big screen. “Sometimes I feel that was right, but there are times when I think, maybe I’m just saying this because I want to make it easier for myself,” she considers. “When I’m talking to someone who is still in Aleppo, I feel so much shame. I’m trying to help but I’m not there. It’s hard.”
Witnessing so much tragedy has left Al-Kateab battling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “My main problem is the nightmares. It’s still very real for me – I’ve never been able to ignore what happened,” she shares. She even feels guilty for having nightmares. “I know that whatever I feel now is nothing compared to what is still going on in Syria. What happened to me is just a little compared to other people. I would love one day to feel some healing, but the only thing that will help me do that is feeling justice for Syria and its people.”
After fleeing Aleppo, Al-Kateab and her family lived briefly in Turkey before seeking asylum in the UK. That’s the abridged version – the full tale is one full of bureaucracy failings and political injustice.
Her family arrived in London in 2018, after the 2016 Brexit referendum, the result of which was in large part prompted by voters’ issues with border control around an influx of migrants and refugees. “I mean, oh my God,” she says, half laughing about the difficult timing. Yet, ever the pragmatist, Al-Kateab decided to not only be a voice for Syrians, but refugees, too. “I feel that I can affect people in their thinking about what it means to be a refugee, and why it’s important for us to not close ourselves. At the Baftas, I was the only refugee nominated. I felt that I was in a position where I could fight for different issues.”
“The most important thing is to maintain the conversation about Syria… it’s never too late for accountability and justice”
While she feels accepted in the UK, Al-Kateab struggles with displacement. She and her family never intended to leave Aleppo. They risked their lives and the lives of their children – she was pregnant with their second child – to stay in Syria. “When I watch the film I’m able to accept everything that happened to us, but the displacement I can’t feel OK about – when we were saying goodbye to the city…” She trails off briefly. “We were fighting so hard to stay.”
Al-Kateab’s daughters, Sama, who is now four-and-a-half, and Taima, who is three, have settled into life in England. Like her mother, Sama initially experienced nightmares. “We had doctors help her and she is much better. She rarely wakes up at night crying or screaming now,” Al-Kateab shares. The girls have adapted so well that they even have London accents, which Al-Kateab half-facetiously seems less than keen on – not so much for the actual dialect than for their heritage. “They are happy,” she says, smiling. “They speak a mix of English and Arabic. We are trying to keep the Arabic level good, but it’s difficult.”
While Sama is too young to remember what she witnessed in Aleppo, her mother aims to keep the girls connected to their roots. Al-Kateab is hopeful. “As Sama grows older, she will be able to understand more. We try to keep the conversation about Aleppo and Syria and I’m trying to tell them stories before bed. I want to keep part of that culture that Hamza and I believe in, and we feel that they should know where they come from, including all the elements like Ramadan and Eid.” One way to understand is to watch her searing documentary. “I don’t know if I will show them the film,” says Al-Kateab. “We need to see when they are ready. Sama has seen the trailer – she loves to watch it.” Naya al Altrash, the daughter of a family friend, Afraa Hashem – both of whom feature in For Sama – was shown the documentary when she was six. “The film answered so many questions for her,” explains Al-Kateab. “She was three-and-half when she left. Now, she is able to see the story as someone from the inside and the outside.”
Since moving to London – the family was granted leave to remain shortly after arriving – Hamza is no longer practicing as a doctor but is working towards a master’s degree in public health. Al-Kateab continues to work as a journalist for Channel 4, producing stories on justice, Syria, and Covid-19. She is also dedicated to three major ventures: a fiction project related to Syria, a new documentary, and Action for Sama, an ongoing campaign to end the targeting of healthcare facilities in Syria. It’s currently building a case against the Syrian regime and Russia for alleged war crimes – For Sama footage will be used as evidence. “The most important thing is to maintain the conversation about Syria,” Al-Kateab says. “If it’s too late for governments to intervene and stop it, it’s never too late for accountability and justice.”
While Al-Kateab may feel guilt for not being in Syria, she continues to fight for Aleppo from afar. “My main hope is to see something changed in Syria soon. I hope we can return to the place we fought for,” she says. Her dream is for citizens to feel empowered. “That’s why this whole Syrian revolution started. If we felt that we were being respected, or empowered, I think the situation wouldn’t have come to this.” After her years staring death in the eye, her words are poignant. “When I was in Aleppo, I was forced to live as if every moment was my last. Until today, I feel that this is the best thing to do. There is not a lot of time in the future so everything you want to do, do now. Tell everyone you love that you love them, right now. Don’t hide any of these feelings because when you have lost them, there is no more time.”