The 2019 Golden Cages: Best Documentary


Another year of cinema has passed, which means it’s time for our second annual Golden Cages awards, the only end-of-the-year awards program featuring everyone’s favorite actor as a screaming statuette! Over the next two weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, we at Flixist will be announcing our winners across seventeen different categories for what we consider the best achievements in film in 2019. Why do we wait so long into the year to do this? Because we can! So sit back, relax, and enjoy the awards.

For Sama remains my most memorable film of 2019. I had the privilege of interviewing directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts at SXSW this time last year, and that encounter for me cemented the idea that films can actually be used as vehicles, a message, from one person to another. I think we have a tendency to theorise and speculate a lot about what a film means, what a shot implied, what the director might have tried to be doing, whether or not we feel an emotional response to the material, and then we evaluate our window of insight with a number. While that’s not a bad thing — and can be a lot of fun, as any film fan knows — it’s another thing entirely to speak to the people who created a very personal story and chose to share it through this media.

Waad al-Kateab is first and foremost a journalist. Prior to the film’s production she was an avid broadcaster, recording footage of life in Syria. When war broke out, she kept up the practice, filming her life with her husband Hamza, a doctor, and daughter Sama, in Aleppo. Many would shy away from recording the images of life in such a brutal and unforgiving place, but she described her compulsion to do the opposite, so that her story could be told to future generations.

There are the expected horrors of war — hospital bombings, civilan attacks. A pregnant woman is the victim of an attack and her newborn baby is only just rescued. But there are also a significant amount of quiet, reflective moments, verging on the serene. Amid everything, Waad and Hamza treasure their baby girl and relish moments where she giggles at a toy or at someone pulling faces. This childhood shouldn’t have flourished by any stretch of the imagination, but it does. It’s nothing short of miraculous.

Despite everything, the family survives, and that’s really the triumph of the whole story. After 5 years — which is almost inconceivable, thinking about the living conditions and the constant battle with despicable warfare tactics — Waad had gathered hundreds of hours of footage, enough to compile her own film. I asked her about the construction of the narrative and she admitted it wasn’t easy to narrow it down. I couldn’t disagree — how do you go about building a narrative out of something so traumatic and so lived? But it seems as if the desire to survive something like the Syrian regime was only superseded by Waad’s courage and singular mission to make her story known for her daughter her generation, giving the film a power I’ve rarely seen in films before.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.