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Syrian director and producer Waad Al-Kateab poses during the photocall for 'For Sama' at the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, 16 May 2019
Photograph: Julien Warnand/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Syrian director Waad Al-Kateab: ‘My expectation was that I would be killed’

The co-director of ‘For Sama’ on her blistering Syrian Civil War documentary

Written by
Hanna Flint
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Waad Al-Kateab spent five years surviving in the Syrian warzone of Aleppo, with her doctor husband, to document the terror inflicted by President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. During their struggle, she conceived a daughter called Sama, and her new doc shares the story of bringing her into the world as it was being torn apart.

When did you realise this footage could be made into a documentary?
‘Not until I left [Aleppo], because my expectation was that I would be killed. I knew I had to film everything, so someone could take this footage one day and do something with it.’

How did you get the footage out?
‘Not until I left [Aleppo], because my expectation was that I would be killed. I knew I had to film everything, so someone could take this footage one day and do something with it.’

What cameras were you using? 
I started with my Nokia mobile phone and ended with a Canon 70, which I still have and is on display in my living room.’

Why did you choose to centre yourself in this story? 
‘The idea was for it to [have] me as an activist, as a mother, as a woman showing the female perspective of seeing the details around us. I’m more interested in showing women’s feelings because I know what they mean.’

Is it important that Syrians tell their own stories rather than them just being relayed by Western journalists?
‘Yes, it is very important. It’s what Marie Colvin was doing. She was smuggled into Syria illegally, and unfortunately, she was killed there, but she was giving voice to people who didn’t have one. All of us as journalists need to find a way to speak to people, on behalf of people, or let these people tell their stories.’

Waad Al-Kateab and her daughter, Sama, in ‘For Sama’

Why was it important to show moments of levity as well as traumatic images of death?
‘We were surviving because we were really moving between the light and the dark of this life; the happiness, the love, the great relationships with friends and families but also the harder stuff and what happened. This is what we went through. This is how we went through it and this is how we processed everything. [Co-director] Ed was surprised at times where we were laughing two minutes before an attack happened. I think everywhere around the world if you’ve had a tough time, you will find a way to understand this. This was a normal life with normal people, not the normal way.’

There are some really tough, unflinching scenes of life and death. How did you decide what to put in the documentary?
‘We had that conversation about how much we would show, how we would protect these people and not make them just numbers or people just dying and dying and dying. We needed people to understand what war means and how it’s so dark, but sometimes there should be life. It’s not just about the attacks; it’s about lives and people who are like your brother, your husband, your child. It could be you, it could be me, it could be anyone. We need to protect people but we also need them to open their eyes about this because if they don’t see it it’s like it didn’t happen. This happened and this is still happening now. This is the major thing about the film. Every day there’s a hospital, every day there are children dying so if we don’t see it we will not make a change, but if you really look at it maybe it will.’

When will you show the film to Sama?
‘It can’t be my choice. It’s more about her asking to watch it. She knows that she has a film and that it’s called “For Sama”. She’s so excited about the idea.’

‘For Sama’ is out on Fri Sep 13. Read our review here

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