When Waad Al-Khateab began filming what was happening to her and her friends in Aleppo, Syria in 2012, she did not know she was making a documentary.
Seven years later, she is a changed woman. Her best friend Hamza became her husband. Her city has been demolished. And her footage has become “For Sama,” which won the Prix L’Œil d’Or for Best Documentary at the Cannes Film Festival 2019.
Sama, for whom the film is named, is the name of Waad and Hamza’s young daughter, who was born during Aleppo’s siege and lived through it for the first year of her life before the three of them were forced to flee. At first glance, it can be hard to understand why Waad and Hamza stayed in Aleppo for as long as they did, especially while starting a family. For the two of them, it was a matter of duty.
“I really still believe that anyone who lived through the first demonstration — and then, when the situation changed and the regime started using heavy weapons against civilians — would do the same; they would try to help with whatever means they have,” Hamza Al-Khateab said at Cannes.
“I’m a doctor, and I knew that this was the best way to be with the people. I felt responsible for what was happening in Aleppo until the end,” he continued. “I was one of the people who were telling people to participate in the demonstrations at the university, and then things started to get more brutal. I felt that it was not my right to say, ‘Things are getting bad now. I’m going to Turkey. See you later.’ I felt more responsible for the people, especially during the siege. I felt that this is our city, and these are the principles that we are fighting for. If we are going to let the people down and say one more doctor will not make a difference, then we were betrayers and liars from the beginning.”
Before the protests began, Waad never considered herself a political activist. The person that she was before — and the person that her husband was — are practically unrecognizable to her after all they have been through.
“We are normal people. Hamza listened to Metallica in university. I was a very normal girl always wearing dresses, which I haven’t worn since 2012. I was always like that before. You don’t think something will change your life,” she said. “In 2011, we never thought we would change our lives, we thought we would change the whole world. That’s why we were in the revolution. Then, when everything changed, step-by-step, we thought this is what we started, and this is the way we should end — with all these other people.”
Waad first began to post her footage as a “citizen journalist,” to show the world what was happening in Aleppo. In 2015, she began to work with Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom.
“They did a great job with (the footage that I sent them), and they created a website called Inside Aleppo,” said Waad.
In 2016, Waad, Hamza and Sama left Aleppo for the last time, fleeing to another city in Syria. From there, they went to Turkey where Hamza’s parents and Waad’s sister and brother lived. The situation there was “complicated,” according to Waad, and after 18 months the family moved to London, where they still reside.
“When I left (Syria), (Channel 4) asked me, ‘Do you have more footage of what you did for the news?’ I told them I had 12 hard drives worth of footage. They asked me to edit, and so I sat with (co-director) Edward Watts, and we watched everything, and thought about how we could do this. It was a very long process with multiple parties,” said Waad.
The documentary is unflinching. It shows the people of Aleppo mortally wounded, in distress, dead and dying. Waad and her collaborators constantly grappled with the ethics of screening such disturbing images — whether they should show the world the worst moments of these people’s lives. Ultimately, they felt it was too important not to show. The careful consideration they gave to the curation of Waad’s footage is, according to Watts, part of the reason that the film took two years to make.
“What you see in the film is really a fraction of what Waad filmed and what happened in Aleppo,” Watts said.
The editing process involved Waad and Watts spending hours watching and re-watching the often-horrifying footage. Unsurprisingly, this weighed heavily on both of them emotionally — especially Waad, who admitted she had some temptation to push the entire story out of her mind and move on.
“On the other hand, I thought that this was a responsibility that I should have, to make a film that the world can watch and see what is happening. It was very hard for me personally, but at the same time I thought about how important it was to not ignore what was going on,” she said.
“I must have watched (some scenes) 10,000 times but I still well up,” Watts said. “(The footage) has an incredible force and emotion and humanity to it. At different points in the project our budget almost disappeared and we were in my house editing late at night, and we were in this tough place. Not all of us on the team were in Syria, (not all of us went) through these things, but we all felt this extraordinary responsibility to take the amazing experiences and the incredible footage that she managed to get and turn it into something that everyone could engage with and stay to the end and still stand it and hopefully take it away and think about it.”
The story does not stop with Aleppo. Parts of Syria are still under siege, and heartbreakingly similar stories are playing out there and in many other parts of the world. Now that Waad has told her own story — named for her infant daughter — her focus has turned to injustice around the globe.
“There are a lot of people dying in other places in the world, and we should stand with them and do something to help them get out safe or stay safe in their country, in their homes. I know it’s hard for everyone to see, but this is the reality. This is what was happening, and still happens. We can’t close our eyes to what’s happening because it’s hard — we should open our eyes and not let it happen ever again, not in Syria or (anywhere else),” said Waad.
With “For Sama,” she has gone some way to ensuring that viewers’ eyes are opened. A small step, perhaps, but a valuable one.
“I still believe that people can change the world,” Waad concluded.