Between bombs falling in Aleppo and the applause in Cannes, France, Waad al-Kataeb found her voice. Her efforts to document the Syrian Revolution in her hometown of Aleppo was validated in mid-May, when she received the “Golden Eye” for her documentary, “For Sama.”
The Cannes Film Festival, named for the southern port city in France in which it is hosted, started in 1946. The festival is one of the most well known in the world. It is held each May in the town’s convention center, the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès.
Waad al-Kateab hails from Aleppo, in Northern Syria, an area that became famous for its opposition to the Syrian government during the revolution, and the brutal crackdown that it suffered as a result. Al-Kateab got married, and gave birth to her daughter, Sama, for which the film is named, while she lived there during the revolution.
Al-Kateab began her reporting by filming protests at the University of Aleppo and around the city in 2012. The city was soon split, the regime loyalists living in one section of Aleppo and the opposition living in another. Al-Kateab moved to the opposition section and began meticulously documenting developments there until she was forced to evacuate in 2016.
She was one of the thousands of residents who fled besieged Eastern Aleppo in 2016, seeking shelter in camps in the surrounding countryside. However, the violence followed her, as Syrian government and Russian planes targeted those makeshift camps soon after she settled there.
While al-Kateab was taking shelter in the countryside, the UN Security Council was deliberating the fate of her and those civilians stuck in Eastern Aleppo under a tightening government-led blockade.
In December of 2016, the Security Council passed a resolution to evacuate upwards of 35 thousand residents from Eastern Aleppo and transfer them to nearby opposition-controlled areas, a process which occurred under international supervision.
Al-Kateab told Syria Direct reporter, Mohammed Abdul Sattar Ibrahim, that the UN resolution was the last straw for her.
“I left Aleppo because of the forced evacuation. The evacuation was the last crime that the regime committed against us.” She then moved to Idlib, and from there to Turkey, before finally settling in London.
Al-Kateab also took the opportunity at Cannes to bring attention to another pressing issue, raising a sign that read “Stop Bombing Hospitals,” along with Dr. Hamza al-Kateab and Edward Watts.
The sign is a statement of solidarity with the citizens of Idlib and Hama, the last opposition enclave in Syria, and a plea for the international community to help stop the Assad regime’s practice of targeting hospitals and residences. The practice is reminiscent of what al-Kateab recorded in Aleppo some years earlier.
Her film, “For Sama,” was the result of her activism from 2012 to 2016, an effort to humanize the conflict that for many around the world had become background noise.
What is the subject of “For Sama,” and what was the reasoning behind its name? When did you film it?
“For Sama” is a Syrian documentary that is written as if it is a letter from a mother to her daughter. It is the mother’s attempt to explain what happened in her city of Aleppo, and Syria in general, to her daughter.
In the film, I show my daughter, Sama, what we went through during the revolution. I explain how the revolution started, how things developed after that, and finally, how things ended with our forced evacuation from Aleppo. I document the events as a mother, as a journalist who lived in the city during the revolution, and as someone who witnessed the slaughter in Aleppo.
I follow specific people who lived in the city at the time, and through their stories, I retell the history of Aleppo. Among the people I focus on are a nurse, a doctor, and a family with three children.
The film is a summary of five years of the revolution in Aleppo, from 2011 to 2016. I started filming in April 2012 until the moment we were evacuated from the city on December 22, 2016. Those were my last moments in the city.
As for Sama… She was born in Al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, in the section of the city where her father and I lived until the forced evacuation. We came to live in the hospital during the last days of the siege.
There are themes that that the film focuses on: What it means to have a child in the conditions which we lived under, how much patience, endurance, and strength the people living in Aleppo at the time had, and of course, just how hard life was at the time… the tragedy, pain, and exhaustion that we all went through.
Any of these moments could have been our last.
Tell us more about your personal story. What were some of the harder moments for you, the events in the film that stuck with you?
I had never worked in media or journalism prior to the revolution, but I had always dreamed of becoming a war-time correspondent. Before the revolution, I dreamed of being a war correspondent in Palestine, seeing how people live over there. But that was just a far-off dream at the time.
After finishing high school, I wanted to major in media studies in university, but my family said no. They said that I was a stubborn and opinionated girl, and because I wasn’t afraid of anything, my first article would land me in jail.
Of course, they weren’t saying this just say it, it was out of concern for me and out of fear from the Syrian security apparatus.
So, the first time I began to film things in a journalistic sense was when I filmed the university protests in Aleppo.
I was a student at the University of Aleppo at the time. The university became to be known as the “Revolutionary University,” after the massive protests and demonstrations that took place there. From that moment on—2011—I began filming.
After a while, the city was divided into two parts: One was under rebel control, the other under government control. I decided to move to the rebel-controlled area and begin documenting the daily lives of people living there.
I documented the massacres, the bombings, the destruction, the different ways that people tried to cope with the new realities of daily life during the revolution.
I began to live in a hospital, because as a woman living alone in these conditions, it was the safest place for me to be. I filmed the doctors and nurses at work, inside and outside of the hospital. We shared everything in that hospital and eventually became like a family.
The hospital, or what I came to call my home, was bombed several times. The most severe strike was in April 2016, and as a result of that strike, the hospital was completely destroyed.
Several of my colleagues died in that strike, including a pediatrician. The remaining staff and I relocated to another location in the city and resumed our work.
During the final moments of the blockade, I was working long hours in the hospital, all day and all night. The footage that I took at that time shows clearly that the regime was deliberately targeting the hospital and its surroundings.
I documented several times that the hospital itself was shelled.
When did you leave Aleppo—and why?
I left Aleppo in December 2016, because of the mandatory evacuation. The evacuation was the last crime that the regime committed against us, against the people of Aleppo. The Syrian regime, Russia and the United Nations, came to an agreement with the [opposition] militias in Aleppo to push the residents out of the city so that the regime could control it.
After the agreement was implemented, the regime committed a number of atrocities the remaining people there.
We left in buses heading towards Idlib. After Idlib, we went to Turkey, and after living there for a year and a half, we sought asylum in London and have been living there for about a year.
With regards to your statement of solidarity at Cannes—Stop Bombing Hospitals—do you think that your message about what has happened in Aleppo, and what is happening in Idlib, has been heard by the international community? And what are your feelings watching what happened in Aleppo happen in Idlib?
I don’t know how the film is going to be received, but to put it briefly, I don’t have much hope that things will change greatly for people [in Syria].
Right now, the thing that most concerns me is the situation of the people who are currently in Idlib, the people under siege that the government is trying to kill and commit atrocities against in order to solidify their control over the area. This is the worst thing currently, in my opinion as a Syrian, as a journalist, and as someone who knows from first-hand experience what these people are going through.
I am intimately familiar with the fear that these people are currently experiencing: The fear for your child, the fear for your family and friends, and the feeling that there is no safe place for you to run to.
What is sad about what happened in Aleppo is that the world watched it happen. Then the same thing was repeated several times in different places in Syria, like in Ghouta for example. Now it is happening in Idlib, and the world is just watching again, doing nothing. And of course, the regime will occasionally make an excuse, saying that they’re bombing terrorists, not Syrians.
Thus, “For Sama,” is a historical documentary whose purpose is to show people what our life was like, as Syrian revolutionaries.
Our dream was to change our lives for the better, but the regime and Russia killed that dream, in a brutal fashion. The Western World also killed that dream, by sitting silently as we were massacred, using the excuse that they were scared of terrorists, of Daesh!
Because of the way the world has behaved towards Syria over the course of the civil war, I have little hope that art will make a difference. However, art must always be present, and in my opinion, there must be a reason why I survived. Maybe the reason I filmed so much, and went through so much, was so the future generations would know what happened in Aleppo.
I hope that the film convinces people what happened in Syria was not a civil war, it was a revolution. I hope it convinces people that Syrians had a right to want a better life.
It could be said that you won a prize, but lost Aleppo. What do you think about this statement?
Of course I won a prize, but lost Aleppo!
There is nothing in the world that can make up for what happened in Aleppo, and to Syria in general. Right now I’m a refugee, and I’m eagerly awaiting the day that I can return to my country.
But I think that this day will only come when the regime falls and Bashar al-Assad is taken to the international criminal court; only then we can start to build Syria anew.
At the end of the day, these prizes are just a small acknowledgement that the Syrian issue still holds significance, and that people still care enough to listen to the experiences that we have been through. However, this still does not make up for even a single moment that we lived through in Aleppo under the blockade.
If I had to go back before all of this started, I would live in Aleppo again. It is better to live in that terrible situation, because at least then we had something we could do to resist. Now, as refugees, away from Syria, there’s nothing we can do.