I had the opportunity to interview directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts for their profoundly moving documentary For Sama at SXSW this year. Talking about the production process and deep humanity of the film, here’s what they had to say.
Directors: Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts
Release Date: March 11, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)
Flixist: I wanted to ask a little bit about the process: you’ve got five years’ worth of footage, that’s a huge undertaking. How did you decide how to bring it all together, what to keep in and what to cut?
Waad al-Kateab: That’s a very difficult question! I’ve started filming, everything was around me — for no reason. I really wanted to document all the things without a clear plan what I would do with this footage. Then when I left Aleppo that’s five years’ worth of footage. I saw this great man [gestures Edward]
Edward Watts: We met in Istanbul.
WK: We met first in Istanbul, we literally watched each moment over this five years, a large amount of footage, then we started to get to know each other more. I remember — a lot of things I filmed by myself but I couldn’t really remember, it was five years’ worth. After we watched everything, we started to see how the subject — what the most important things we want to tell people were.
EW: What was amazing in those days sitting in Istanbul was like, Waad had all these beautiful, extraordinary and such strong fragments, it was like a mosaic, all these little bits and some things were just like one shot, from a car window or Sama or or Waad typing at her computer. And then there were these other shots that were like these long shots through the scenes in the hospital that were so shocking: and I think the thing that’s so amazing about it were that there were so many things, her, her life, the story of Syria, the story of Aleppo, the story of Sama, all of those things, and I think that’s what we’d been working together on it for a year and a half to work out how that all coalesced into that film and into the right story.
WK: And the process was unusual: not just mine, but in his thinking, and all the people who worked on this. All the people that saw us working on this project said it wasn’t a usual project. We changed thousands of times, and a lot of footage we insisted to be in the film is not now. We still have some ideas, if we could have this or remove this — it’s a very big archive. And we still now have a lot of stories of people which I really want to tell. But there’s no place in this film! Among other things! And i thought first of all, it’s my footage, and I really related to this, so that’s why I feel like it’s very hard for me to remove things, while now, with time, all the executive producers and managers, production managers and Ed [Watts] and his wife was also involved too, and my husband, all these people have worked on the film. Each one of us has this moment that we want to see more, it was difficult for them to delete this moment. It’s still very confusing!
Flixist: Absolutely! One of the things that jumped out at me is that your personality comes across so well and I feel like you’re very strong and courageous! Would you consider yourself first and foremost a journalist, or, from my point of view, you’re almost like an activist or a warrior for a cause. How would you describe yourself and your role in the film?
WK: I’m all of them; I was a citizen journalist, people really wanted to transfer the stories of people to out. I was the mother of Sama, which I was really enjoying even through this hard experience and these difficult moments. I was a woman, which I really want to fight for my rights and freedom, and dignity. I was all of them together and this I think is what makes the film very clear that this is a personal story, and it’s a general story of the country as Syria.
EW: Yeah, it’s just like Waad says, she the fact that she’s all these different roles at once, and I think you’re right, she is an incredible, courageous warrior for a cause, and not just a political cause but for humanity, because she is representing — one of the ways we think about it is that with all this death and all the violence that was being thrown against them, these guys and Hamza and Sama, represent the very best human qualities like love, family, self-sacrifice, all these beautiful things. Which they, in the midst of this storm, they stayed true to, stayed true to each other and their friends, and that’s why I think it’s a film about Syria but it has such a universal application because it’s about the fundamentals of human courage. [laughs] That’s why I’m here to say these things!
Flixist: Yes absolutely! And just going to the personal side of the story, a lot of the images were very unique to you — even down to Sama’s birth. I was really pleased that you put that in there, I think it’s really important for the film to be true. Did you have any reservations about being so open about your personal life — such raw, intimate, very private moments — did you have concerns about showing everything like this to the world?
WK: I feel now that everything I went through was like a dream — so I don’t know, I’ve never thought of this before, but when you ask me this question, I think of it it like a dream or imagination. Now, each moment, I live there. The suffering, the beauty, moments when I first see Sama or when I get married, I really like to relive each moment. I really want all people around the world to have the feeling that, although all the world knows that there’s war in Syria, but everyone knows that there’s life, that we’re there. All people give birth and have this beauty and this will help them to understand that in Syrian there are human beings killed and there’s suffering, and this is the point of the whole film.
EW: I was just going to say, one of the things that’s so incredible about what Waad captured is that normality: it’s just the simple things that people remember more than the violence, often. My friends that watched it, it’s like that family Salam and Afra having dinner, just joking with each other, where they’re all having one piece of fruit — and your willingness to go in and capture that normal life, is what I think allows people to make that connection.
Flixist: Definitely. Two things that jumped out at me along that thread of normality was when the hospital was bombed and we had footage of it, just the line about, war doesn’t just affect cities, cities are made up of people. just think it’s a very courageous decision that you’ve made to put that up there. On the production side, you mentioned it took about 18 months, could you talk to me a little bit about the process behind that?
EW: As Waad was saying before, we met in Istanbul, we watched everything, and I think part of the journey we went on together was just – how do we navigate through this? The edit went through and this process of the story, and there were different versions. We had a version where there was a big talking head interview with her, and that will be in the TV versions later in the year. But gradually I think as we got to know each other more, and the more that we sat with that footage and looked at it — and we had some amazing editors, really brilliant editors—
WK: Very patient! [laughs]
EW: Chloe and Simon — you began to realise – we just kept on going back to it, I guess. As a filmmaker, you’re never satisfied, that little voice of dissatisfaction is always — how loud is it shouting? It kept on saying, “I think we should go back”, we just kept coming back together, And we’d meet and be like, ‘yeah it’s great..now what’s this thing…’, and so we had a big long period of editing for nine months, and we finished. And then, four months later, we opened it all back up again, and we transformed everything, and then we finished, then we kept on opening up a little bit of it, even just a few weeks ago we did a final thing on the voiceover.
WK: It wasn’t just a film, so we can do it. We needed this long time of working. It’s 18 months of working but it’s actually two years of working to the exact date since we just met to have this ideas that we decide to do something. From that month until now, we really needed this time, even for me, to understand this story to think about what the most important things are to tell to the world, for Ed and the team to understand really what was this process I went through over five years. The film was really — we always laugh at this moment that “yeah, I survived Aleppo”, and we will show that we will survive the film, because all of us, you know, we’re very involved. We felt that in many moments. We are really scared about each other because most of us have sensitive moments, where we’re involved too much in the film. It was a very unusual process and it was really – I think now I can feel that I’m very satisfied, and this is when I saw the final version cut. I was very happy that, yeah, this is what I really want.
Flixist: That’s so good, and it is worth the time and patience, I think, revising it and making it what you wanted it to be. For me one thing that stood out was the importance of family. Did you have concerns when you were making the film about safety? And did you have any other concerns for your family?
Waad: Actually, there was a very strong feeling that I survived for something. And this thing is the film. This is why I should like to make a document or record everything we weren’t through, not just me, but all the people who sacrificed something, all of Syria, in this great revolution. So I should give them something. As a brief or evidence or a record that we had everything that we had, we survived everything, not for nothing, I think it would be for history. For our new generation to understand why we were there and what the point of being there was — to be not afraid to die for something you really believed in.
EW: Even today one of the issues is that Waad’s face has never been shown. She’s won all these awards for her news coverage but no-one’s ever seen her face because her parents were still living in Syria up until this weekend, basically. So now they’ve left. And I think it’s really important for people to understand the reality of this regime. there are still people that are being arrested, there are still people who supposedly – you, know, they made peace with them, and they wait a few weeks and they round them up. And they’re still perfectly capable — even though Waad’s story is so personal and so human — of seeking to do reprisals against her parents just for showing her face. And so it was a big thing.
WK: Like, the place where I came from, it was really difficult because it was under the regime- controlled areas, and all my worries when I was in Aleppo were that, if I die, my family can say that I died in Aleppo, that I was killed in Aleppo because of the regime. It’s like they would die twice, once because they lost their daughter, the other one because they can’t really explain what’s happened or why or anything like this. So, over all these years, I was really worried about them, because any small mistake they could put them in jail, or prison, or they could be arrested or kidnapped.
EW: It was a big pressure.
WK: Yes, it was a big pressure, and at the same time I was very supported by this great team, with Channel 4 news, because they respected my security and they kept wishing me well every day and told me before anything to keep my family safe and to take them out [of Syria] before the film will be released.
Flixist: Yes, and I think it makes it all the more powerful that it’s real and that you’ve made that decision. It means that people should really admire you for it, I certainly do, so thank you. What kind of response could you expect from people, particularly in Western audiences at SXSW from watching your film? I know we’re quite removed from Syrian culture and from the events happening so what could we do in response to your film?
WK: Unfortunately — I don’t like to say that we lost everything, but maybe we lost everything. The only things that we still have to fight for – we fight for a cause, or fight for for ideas, for thoughts, what we went through. These things shouldn’t be forgotten. I really want people to know what was really happening there. It’s not just about ISIS, although the regime was very big in Syria, it was something much bigger. It’s something I really need people to think about: there are still children killed until now, in this moment, yesterday and every day, the Syrian regime attacked places inside Syria and killed people. And I really want people to think differently, for them to know that we’re in 2019 and until now that’s happening, the whole world knows this, governments aren’t having any reaction towards these people.
EW: I just wanted to add to that. The amazing thing about this film is that we’ve heard — the way normal people at home receive news about Syria is distorted very much through the lens of ISIS and terrorism, and the amazing thing that you see in Waad’s film is just the common humanity that we share, right in the heart of the Syrian storm. And I think that when people see that, and they see what the real Syrian people are like, they’ll realise what an unbelievable tragedy we’ve allowed to happen in front of our eyes. And as Waad says, it’s happening now, and we need to refind the steel in our backbone to essentially say, we’re not going to allow children to be slaughtered on our watch, we’re going to find some way in which we can protect the people who are still there, bring justice to all the people who’ve been murdered and killed, and to try and ensure that it never happens again.
Flixist: Yes, absolutely, I wanted to say thank you so much, it was a really insightful film and I hope that even more people are able to see it and take away these crucial messages from it.