Cannes Film Fest 2019: For Sama

A love letter from a young mother to her daughter, For Sama 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.

The film is the first feature documentary by Emmy award-winning filmmakers, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts.

A letter from Waad al-Kateab, a 26-yearold Syrian mother, to her daughter Sama recorded in the last days of the battle for Aleppo, Syria.

Waad lives with Sama’s father, a doctor in the last surviving hospital in rebel-held Aleppo. Surrounded on all sides, bombarded daily by the Syrian regime and Russian air force, Waad fears they may be killed at any moment. So she crafts a filmed message to her one-year-old daughter to explain who her parents were, what they were fighting for and why Sama came into this world – a record for the young girl in case they don’t survive.

Waad’s story begins in 2012 when she was a student studying marketing at Aleppo University. Protests against the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad reach the university and Waad is one of the first to join. Her camera captures the joy and optimism of those early days. She meets a young medic in the protests called Hamza and with a group of friends they continue to demand freedom even as the regime resorts to greater and greater violence to crush them, eventually engulfing the city in full-blown war. They lose friends and narrowly escape death themselves at the hand of snipers, airstrikes and barrel bombs, scenes all captured on camera. Then, in the midst of the storm, Hamza proposes marriage.

They marry, move into their first home and before long Waad is pregnant, scenes recognisable to any young couple anywhere in the world. The difference is their honeymoon plays out against an increasingly apocalyptic war. When the Russians intervene to save the regime in September 2015, they unleash ferocious violence against the rebels. Yet despite their fear, Waad and Hamza decide not to flee the city as so many have done, but to stay and continue the fight for freedom. She realises that the struggle is no longer only for them, it’s for the future of her daughter. Sama is born on the 1st January 2016, a small ray of hope in the chaos.

Sama’s first year of life will see the last year of the battle for the city, a time of almost unimaginable darkness. The regime and its allies resort to every imaginable atrocity to crush the rebels. Hamza’s hospital is bombed. They are besieged and witness attacks by chlorine gas, cluster and barrel bombs, massacres of women and children. Yet amid it all, Waad and Hamza have the joy of parenthood, witnessing the first weeks of their baby daughter’s life, full of fun and laughter. She gives them the strength to endure and inspiration to all of the last band of rebels.

Overwhelmed, they are forced into exile. In the exodus, the family pack their things and with tears in their eyes, bid farewell to the shattered city, the place where their dream of freedom was born and where it died. Yet they carry their daughter with them, an eternal symbol of the love and hope that the violence of tyrants cannot destroy.

FOR SAMA is a Channel 4 News & ITN Productions feature documentary for Channel 4 and PBS FRONTLINE. Winner of the Grand Jury prize for Best Documentary and the Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival, it has also won the Best Cinematography award at the 2019 River Run International film festival. The film will have a U.S. theatrical release in the summer followed by a broadcast premiere on Channel 4 and PBS Frontline.

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT

WAAD AL-KATEAB
This is not just a film for me – it’s my life. I started capturing my personal story without any plan, just filming the protests in Syria on my mobile phone, like so many other activists. I could never have imagined where my journey would take me through those years. The mix of emotions we experienced – happiness, loss, love – and the horrific crimes committed by the Assad regime against ordinary innocent people, was unimaginable… even as we lived through it.
From the beginning, I found myself drawn to capture stories of life and humanity, rather than focus on the death and destruction which filled the news. And as a woman in a conservative part of Aleppo, I was able to access the experiences of women and children in the city, traditionally off limits to men. That allowed me to show the unseen reality of life for ordinary Syrians, trying to live normal lives amid our struggle for freedom.
At the same time, I continued living my own life. I married and had a child. I found myself trying to balance so many different roles: Waad the mother, Waad the activist, Waad the citizen journalist and Waad the director. All those people both embodied and led the story. Now I feel those different aspects of my life are what gives the film its strength.
I want people to understand that, while this is my story and shows what happened to me and my family, our experience is not unusual. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians experienced the same thing and are still doing so today. The dictator who committed these crimes is still in power, still killing innocent people. Our struggle for justice is as relevant today as it was when the revolution first began.
I felt a great burden of responsibility to the city, its people and to our friends – to tell their stories properly so they will never be forgotten and no one can ever distort the truth of what we lived through.
Making the film was almost as hard as living through the years in Aleppo. I had to relive everything again and again. Thankfully I worked with a great team who cared so much about me, my story, and Syria.
One person in particular is my fellow director, Edward Watts. He took the burden I carried onto his own shoulders and, with his strength added to my own, we were able to turn the vast complexity of my life and footage into the crafted story you see today.

EDWARD WATTS
This is the most important film I have ever worked on. I have been following the Syrian uprising since it began, trying to tell the truth beyond the lies and propaganda that have muddied people’s understanding of what happened in that country. That truth is embodied in the courage, honesty and altruism of Waad, Hamza and Sama. They are extraordinary people; an example to us all in these days of great tumult in the world.

In my documentaries I have always sought to highlight the humour and humanity we share with people living in desperate situations in the far flung corners of the world. That is the truth that will save us, not the false divisions so many people peddle these days. Our failure to stand with ordinary Syrians when they were protesting for their freedom and were brutally crushed by the Assad regime has led directly to so many of the problems that affect us all today, from the birth of ISIS to the rise of the far right, the refugee crisis and the normalisation of indiscriminate assaults against civilian populations in war.

Through Waad’s story, the world can finally see what really happened, understand the depth of our tragic mistakes and hopefully rediscover the steel in our bones to ensure it never happens again. It has been an honour and a privilege to direct this film with her.

BIOGRAPHIES
Waad al-Kateab (Director, Producer and Camerawoman) In January 2016 Waad al-Kateab started documenting the horrors of Aleppo for Channel 4 News in a series of devastating films simply titled Inside Aleppo.

The reports she made for Channel 4 News on the conflict in Syria, and the most complex humanitarian crisis in the world, became the most watched pieces on the UK news programme – and received almost half a billion views online and won 24 awards – including the 2016 International Emmy for breaking news coverage.

Waad was a marketing student at the University of Aleppo when protests against the Assad regime swept the country in 2011. Like many hundreds of her fellow Syrians, she became a citizen journalist determined to document the horrors of the war.

She taught herself how to film – and started filming the human suffering around her as Assad forces battled rebels for control of Aleppo. She stayed through the devastating siege – documenting the terrible loss of life and producing some of the most memorable images of the six-year conflict. When she and her family were evacuated from Aleppo in December 2016, she managed to get all her footage out.

Waad lives in London with her husband Hamza and two daughters.
Edward Watts (Director) Edward Watts is an Emmy award-winning, BAFTA nominated filmmaker who has directed over twenty narrative and documentary films that tell true stories of courage, heroism and humour from across the world, covering everything from war crimes in the Congo to the colourful lives of residents in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
His 2015 film Escape from ISIS exposed the brutal treatment of the estimated 4-million women living under the rule of the Islamic State and, for the first time on television, told the extraordinary story of an underground network trying to save those it can. It received numerous international awards and citations, including an International Emmy and Bafta nomination for Best Current Affairs Documentary.
The Guardian described it as “a breathtakingly bold piece of journalism”, while the Spectator said it was “such an important documentary it ought to rank with the footage of British troops liberating Belsen”. Prime Minister David Cameron cited the film in a major policy speech on ISIS. Edward was also invited to testify at the US Congress about the film’s key findings at the Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington DC in July 2015.

Among his other work, his first narrative short film Oksijan told the incredible true story of a 7-year-old Afghan boy’s fight to survive as he is smuggled to the UK in a refrigerated lorry and the air inside begins to run out. It premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2017 and has since played at prestigious film festivals around the world.
Edward’s filmmaking aspires to tell visceral, gripping stories about people who live in far flung corners of the world, to emphasise our common humanity to audiences back home. In so doing, he hopes his films can make a positive contribution to reducing the hatred in our tumultuous world. He has an eye for the unexpected: the intimacy found even in the bleakest places; the stories of hope amid horror. He creates films on a strong foundation of riveting narrative story-telling and striking, cinematic images.