'I Filmed to Stay Alive': The Golden Age of Documentary in Syria
Waad al-Kateab's 'For Sama,' directed with Edward Watts, is a harrowing inside look at life in Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War.
There has never been a film like For Sama. Let's hope there will never have to be another like it again.
For five years, Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab took out her camera to document life on the front lines of her country's apocalyptic civil war. She filmed her decision to stay in Aleppo with her boyfriend, Dr. Hamza al-Khatib, a trauma surgeon and one of the few doctors who remained in the war-torn city.
She filmed his team as they treated patients in a makeshift hospital, saving countless lives in the absence of any government-run services. She filmed their wedding, in a small, cramped room in the hospital, where they decided to live full-time in order to cope with the constant barrage of casualties. Her husband filmed the birth of their baby, Sama, as rockets rattle the hospital, and al-Kateab cries for those they've lost as she sees her daughter for the first time. She filmed the starving and desperate people in the streets of the besieged city, as Russian and regime-powered warplanes tore through the sky, leaving a trail of carnage in their wake. She filmed the 300 daily patients, dead and dying, whose relatives and neighbors dragged them into what was now the last standing medical facility in Aleppo, the others having been bombed. She filmed every day, despite the fact that it could very well be her last.
"Every day that I was filming, I was expecting it to be the last day of my life. That's why I was filming all of this footage—I was gathering evidence in case my life ended."
Miraculously, al-Kateab and her husband survived. To say much more about the circumstances would be to undermine the harrowing emotional narrative that al-Kateab and her directing partner, Emmy-winning British filmmaker Edward Watts, have crafted with over 500 hours of footage from the most complex and devastating humanitarian crisis in recent history.
For Sama, framed as a love letter from al-Kateab to her baby daughter, is a film of wrenching dichotomies. It is an intimate and epic journey into one woman's experience of war. Al-Kateab oscillates between hope and despair as she attempts to reconcile her idealistic revolutionary spirit with the harsh pragmatism required for survival during wartime. Her camera is at once an activist's weapon, documenting the atrocities around her through the unflinching lens of someone seeking justice, and an immersive portrait of the daily resilience of humanity during wartime—vérité of the highest order.
Sama embodies the future of Syria, and an impossible choice: If the family flees the country and saves themselves, they abandon the thousands of suffering citizens who need their help, not to mention everything they've already sacrificed. If they stick it out, they set an example for Sama about fighting for the world into which they brought her—but that resolve might cost them their lives. Is it worth it? The question hangs on every frame. In one scene, al-Kateab trains the camera on her daughter as the baby babbles to herself. "She’s saying, Mum, why did you give birth to me?" al-Kateab says from behind the camera. "It’s been nothing but war since the day I was born."
No Film School sat down with al-Kateab and Watts to discuss the reality of bearing cinematic witness in unthinkable circumstances, the two-year-long process of editing the film, and more. After screening at SXSW and Cannes and airing on PBS's Frontline, For Sama is now in theaters in New York. It expands nationwide on July 26.
No Film School: Waad, you're a Syrian citizen journalist. Ed, you're a British documentarian. How did you two find each other?
Waad al-Kateab: I was working with Channel Four News in 2016 from Aleppo. We did many five-minute news reports. After I left [Syria], I came to London to meet them and speak more about what we'd done. We made a website called Inside Aleppo. But I wanted to make something bigger—to speak about something we couldn't on the news. So they introduced me to Ed. He is very passionate about Syria, and he had worked with them before.
Edward Watts: It was a beautiful bit of matchmaking.
NFS: Waad, I can imagine it was a daunting prospect initially to share your trove of footage—your life—with Ed. How did you begin to parse through it?
Watts: The archive was so massive! To begin, we just sat together and talked through everything.
Al-Kateab: Just to introduce him to my life.
Watts: All the details. I wrote like 70 pages of notes in that first week. We watched hundreds of hours of footage. That was just the beginning of the process.
NFS: How many hours do you think you had in your archive?
Al-Kateab: I had over 500 hours of footage. It was literally five years of filming every day. Sometimes I would follow a specific family for a while. Sometimes I just filmed daily life in the hospital. Then, at home, personal stuff. Normal life outside, on the streets.
Watts: She was still pulling out clips right until the end.
Al-Kateab: I'd put material on this hard drive, and then I forgot to edit it. I would just add a new folder in a new folder. I'm not that organized at all. It was a disaster.
Watts: There were all sorts of files in Dropbox, too. There was just a job of organizing to do.
NFS: How did you start talking about how you were going to tell this incredibly complex, epic story? Did you always intend to shape the narrative as a letter to Sama?
Al-Kateab: From the beginning, no, that's wasn't clear for us. For the first maybe five months we were just watching and cutting things. We would just something on the timeline, to see what the story would be.
"I had over 500 hours of footage. It was literally five years of filming every day."
We really had a long process about how we would shape the story. But the main thing was the narrative of my personal life story—how I came to Aleppo, how I started living there, and how we left. From the beginning, it was clear that it would be my personal story.
And there were some key scenes, like the miracle baby and three brothers, that were just so extraordinary. We knew we had to include those.
Watts: We started quite chronologically. When you're just trying to get a handle on this vast, this epic story, you're just trying to work out what is happening in the footage. What is happening in the city at that point? How do the two interrelate? Which parts of that story do you tell? [We had to do] a mapping process before we could get into the detail of actually thinking about the humanity.
Al-Kateab: Two-thirds of the process was just understanding the story chronologically. And the last third, let's say, was [figuring out how] to share the story in a way that's engaging and cinematic.
Watts: That's when the "For Sama" idea came through. Even though all the footage was kind of a conversation with Sama, it was only actually until we had been through a lot of that other process that [talking to Sama] became the key to shaping the narrative.
NFS: It's interesting that you started chronologically. I thought you two did an incredible job of telling the story, even though you were constantly jumping back and forth through time. It was never confusing.
Watts: Oh my god. There was one version that we did where we were so confused.
Al-Kateab: Like, it was confusing even for us.
Watts: Yeah! We worked on it for weeks. There was this very intricate flashing back, flashing forward. We were so happy with it, and then two days later we watched it and just thought, "That doesn't make any sense!"
Watts: One of the things that helped the flashbacks was building in a classic narrative structure. We used this idea of five acts as a means of mucking out the different mini-stories.
Al-Kateab: When you want to tell a story just in life, you find yourself starting normally and then you relate everything to something [from the past] or something in the future. It's the normal way humans tell stories. I wanted the movie to happen in this way.
NFS: You mentioned trying to make the film more cinematic, so you must have been thinking a lot about the audience. There's the challenge of telling your story accurately, and then there's the challenge of telling it to an audience—what do they need to see to understand, and what will move them. How did you navigate that?
Watts: That is what we both brought to the table. I was very focused on the Western audience.
Al-Kateab: I was more on the local audience. And for me, it was not about how we can create parallels between the personal stuff and the general stuff. It was more important to experience the city, the big massacres that happened, the things that we witnessed.
And at the same time, we were very careful to move between the dark and light of the story. The audience can't get [too depressed] to keep watching.
Watts: We had these constant debates: I would say, "This is what we want to do because that's going to help the audience settle into the story or understand the location or the characters." It was like this forging of our two minds.
"The film sort of knows what it wants to be. Sometimes it just takes the filmmakers to hear the film talking to us."
NFS: I read in the director's statement that you said that it was really difficult to go back through all of the footage and effectively relive everything.
Al-Kateab: Yes. We left [Syria], and we were very shocked we were still alive. You feel that there is really no reason [you survived]. So if I didn't make this film, everything I went through would mean nothing. I wanted this story to go to every single person around the world and give them the chance to feel exactly this experience. To care and be more engaged with feeling that this wat is still happening. This is not a story that has ended; it's now still happening, and I can make a difference.
So I thought about that big responsibility and I knew I should go for it. Having Ed with me in this process as another director, he really guided the way when I couldn't do anymore. It was a lot of really painful content. The team was really respectful of the story—not just my personal life, but also the responsibility for this material to turn into something very important. They gave me space to communicate my experience.
Watts: I was worried about her at times, though. It was hardcore. I mean, she's a very strong woman, but there was one night in particular that I remember we were just recording voiceovers—we were in different places—and I heard the recording, and you could hear just how affected she was. I called her up.
Al-Kateab: And I was worried about you sometimes! I called the producers like, "Please, Ed should stop now." He didn't sleep for three days. He just kept working on this. I was afraid he wasn't okay. He was too involved so that he was not controlling himself anymore.
Watts: I was in the white heat. We were running short on money. We had been editing a long time. We could see the film, but it was just like, "How can we get to that place?" It's like when finally, you can see the thing you're aiming for, but you've just got to get there.
It was like a battle—one of us fell, and the other one stepped up. It was a tough process.
NFS: What did it take to make that leap to the finishing line?
Watts: The film sort of knows what it wants to be. Sometimes it just takes the filmmakers to hear the film talking to us. It's almost like an epiphany. There's no rational way of explaining it out loud.
NFS: How many years did you work on this for? Not including the filming. Just editing.
Al-Kateab: Two, exactly. Six hours a day, sometimes late into the night. And if we didn't do it that way, it would [have taken] more than two years.
Watts: The other day, someone said to us, "When you watch it, it just flows." And that's when you know you've done a great job—when you don't see all that work behind the scenes. When it just feels very natural. That's what all the work is about, getting to that point.
NFS: Waad, when you were filming day to day, did you have any sense of what you were going to do with the footage?
Al-Kateab: Life in Syria was about day-to-day existence. We never thought about what we would eat tomorrow, or next week, or next month. We never had any plan for our future. Every day that I was filming, I was expecting it to be the last day of my life. That's why I was filming all of this footage—I was gathering evidence in case my life ended. What I really had in my mind when I was there was that I would be killed, and someone will take this footage out of Syria and make something of it. Because if I didn't do this, I would just be forgotten, you know?
"This is not just another picture of another bombed building or another person being pulled from the rubble. This is an opportunity to meet the people, to understand their lives emotionally."
I wasn't expecting that I was going to do a documentary. Everything I was filming in Syria was a different style. I was filming a story for Channel Four News that was more humanitarian than a news story. Also, for me, it was very important to document the cases, the injuries, the crimes, the massacres. The children, the women, the images in the hospital. There were many scenes that we didn't include in the film. We knew they were for [documentation purposes only].
NFS: How do you make a decision between a shot that is documentation and a shot that relates to the larger narrative of the film?
Watts: I had to do it on a case by case. There was so much stuff that was relevant to the narrative. But in the end, we just have to make those tough choices. As we say sometimes, you could've made a series out of this. But a feature doc film was the right thing for us.
Al-Kateab: There were just so many stories! That was one of the toughest things: how do you choose? You had to pick like five or six shots to convey something out of 5,000.
Watts: I think people sometimes feel overwhelmed by the images that have come out of Syria. What we were trying to do was to get people to reconnect with those images so they didn't shut down anymore. You could say, well, everyone is kind of tired of Syria, it's been going on so long, what can you do? It's just a mess. We wanted to say no to that. We wanted to reignite with that humanity and compassion. This is not just another picture of another bombed building or another person being pulled from the rubble. This is an opportunity to meet the people, to understand their lives emotionally.
NFS: I think that is so important. Unfortunately, news fatigue is real.
Watts: It's so hard. I mean, it's hard for people we know—our friends at Channel Four News do just that. They do an amazing job of telling things in different ways, changing lanes and stuff. But it's still just three-minute segments. It's so hard to explain what's happening and to get people to engage with it emotionally.
Al-Kateab: That's why I did this documentary.
Watts: This is the golden age of documentary. I think it's because people are hungry to understand [the world] intellectually, but also to emotionally connect. You can hear about all of this stuff going on in the world, and you're just not able to connect with it. A great documentary allows you to do that.
"Imagine, what if I had just turned off the camera? Something unbelievable happened, and I got it on film because I was patient and I listened to something in my heart."
NFS: What was your relationship to the camera, in terms of filmmaking, during the chaos and suffering happening around you in Syria?
Al-Kateab: Well, when I was filming in the Emergency Room, no one knew that I was there. Sometimes, when journalists would come to the hospital while Hamza is working, he'd say they get in the way,
Hamza: I would have to say, "Mind your head," or "I can't see the light," or "Scoot over a bit." But because Waad knows everything at the hospital, she could stand in places like she was invisible.
Al-Kateab: For example, when patients come, I know the CPR process. I know exactly what they will do. So it's almost like you're I'm filming fiction because you have the script. I have it in my mind what is going to happen.
NFS: Do you have any advice for anyone who is filming in a conflict zone?
Al-Kateab: It's really about following your intuition. If you feel something, go for it. Even if you think in your mind that it is stupid! If you feel you need to film something in your heart, go for that. Go for your emotional [instincts], more than your [rational] mind.
For example, when the miracle baby was born, I wanted to turn the camera off many times when I was filming. I just thought, "This baby boy is dead. There's no need to continue filming this for 12 minutes." But there was something in me that said "no" every time I wanted to turn it off. I was like, "Okay, two more minutes. One more minute." And then that baby boy opened his eyes.
Imagine, what if I had just turned off the camera? Something unbelievable happened, and I got it on film because I was patient and I listened to something in my heart even when it didn't make sense.
Another time, I was working with Channel Four News, and I did a report about a florist who had a garden [despite the war]. When I told [Channel Four] about this story, they were like, "It's very risky. If there is a ceasefire, you can go and follow him, but for now, it's not worth it." But I ignored them and went alone. I just had this feeling that this was something that's really important, and I couldn't save it for tomorrow. It had to happen today.
One day before the cease-fire happened, they attacked the garden, and the florist was killed.
Al-Kateab: Also, I filmed a lot of personal stuff. Hamza was always telling me all the time, you know, "Stop filming! It's always everything with the camera, the camera, the camera." Like when I found out I was pregnant, I filmed the test. I was seeing as you've seen it [in the movie]. Filming was my way to stay alive in that place.
And today, Hamza was that he's very proud I didn't listen to him when he was telling me to stop filming. Everything was really important to film.
NFS: When you look back on the process of crafting this narrative, how do you feel?
Watts: It's extremely rare to finish a film and be satisfied with it, in my experience. On so many projects, you look back and are like "Oh god, there was that issue that we never quite sorted out." But this is the first project in my life where I'm like, "No, actually, all of the things were resolved." I think we can both say we are satisfied with this film.
There were issues about the graphic content—like how much to show. Showing the reality but not showing too much. I think we feel like we got the balance right. Also, how to shape the narrative and give it humanity—how do you take this huge block of rock and turn it into a beautiful sculpture? The whole process was a challenge.
What's been so amazing about this is working together with Waad. I'm an outsider filmmaker who is working with a filmmaker who's lived it and been there. I think if you're talking about people who are filming in conflict zones, who are outsiders to that conflict, it's so important to have that respect and spirit of collaboration with the people you're filming. You should just involve them in the storytelling as much as you can. That's what's exciting about our work—we achieved something that means something to the people there and means something to the outside world. The film actually represents and supports both [perspectives]. I think that's the new responsibility that's on a lot of filmmakers who are operating in conflict zones.
In all of my previous films, I've never had this opportunity. I've gone into a place and then filmed and then gone back [to England]. I've remained in contact with a lot of people I've filmed, but there's been a distance. This film is the best thing I've ever done because I've worked with Waab.
Al-Kateab: And I could have never done this alone.