‘For Sama’ director gives call to action at 51Fest

Last weekend, For Sama screened at the IFC Center in 51/Fest, a new film festival by and about women, celebrating the female majority in front of and behind the camera. The riveting documentary is about director Waad Al-Khateab’s journey through motherhood while living through the siege of Aleppo. The screening included a Q&A with Al-Khateab, co-director Edward Watts, and Waad’s husband, Hamza Al-Khateab, moderated by journalist Anne Barnard.

You can read FF2 Contributor, Beatrice Viri’s review of the film here.

AB: You were filming for five years on and off. How did you get [the footage] out of Aleppo?

WA: For me, the footage was worth more than my life. I decided to take that risk and take it out [of Aleppo], because it meant that everything happened. Without this film, very few people would know the details of life there.

When we left with the last convoy, I put everything in a bag and wore it near my stomach. I was 3 months pregnant with Taima, my second daughter, and wore a large winter jacket on top. Sama sat on top of me, holding a toy. I thought this was the safest way to take it out. If the footage didn’t make it out, I didn’t want to be out. 

It was 4 AM and storming, so they didn’t search us as well. They just wanted to announce the victory of taking Aleppo.

AB: You made this film from the perspective of a young woman and mother. Do you think that gave you access to different stories? 

WA: It was risky and dangerous [in Aleppo]. The situation was very strange, even for people who already lived there. I lived in the city since 2012 and I wasn’t just into the place to film people for stories. 

People knew me, not just a journalist or the wife of the doctor, but also someone who has lived the same experience. When I was pregnant, I would speak to other women and they knew that I knew what they were feeling. 

That’s what makes the film more special; sometimes men don’t feel the same feelings. What does it mean to be pregnant, have a life inside you, and all the death around you? Hamza can’t experience that.

AB: I was wondering about the decision to go backwards and forwards in time. Why [did you do] that?

EW: What was so clear in the footage was the mix of darkness in all the terrible things [the people had] seen but also all the humanity and the joy of life. By moving in between the different time periods, it allowed us to reflect that. To realize that even in the darkest moments, people’s spirits still shine through. People are still trying to support each other, still love each other, and still cheer each other on.

AB: Dr. Hamza, you were in the middle of medical school residency when the revolution began. How were you planning your life up to that point?

HA: I wasn’t that connected to Syria then. I knew the country was full of corruption and I just wanted to take that degree and go to Germany or the UK and do my residency there, then become a specialist. But, when the revolution started, I became connected to the ground more and more. Then, when eastern Aleppo was announced as the non-government controlled area and I saw on Youtube [all the war crimes that Assad committed], that’s when I moved from the west side of Aleppo to the east side and stayed there until the end.

AB: And you too, Waad. You were planning to go outside of Syria. What happened for you?

WA: Before the revolution, we didn’t belong to Syria; we weren’t proud to be Syrians. This is something I think is more common among my generation. Then, when the revolution started, we thought we could change not just our life, but we can change the whole life of Syria; we can even change the world. You can feel how many people were full of hope and full of the will of change. That feeling can’t leave you, even now. With everything that’s happened, I still feel that we will see the free Syria we dream of, even if that’s so far from now.

… 

It’s not about a story ending with three years later. It’s still happening now and the people who just want to continue their own life, the Regime and the Russians still insist they just want to destroy them. I don’t know what the message of this is, but what can do for these people? How can we really change their lives? It’s not about just a story. We survived and are very lucky, but a lot of others aren’t so lucky.

HA: It’s happened many times before Aleppo. Now it’s happening in Idlib. In the past 3 months more than 26 health facilities were attacked. More than 800 children were killed. Everything you see in the film is happening again and again. 

Unfortunately, I will speak for myself and other Syrian activists, we feel helpless. We’ve tried everything. I’ve talked at the UN. I spoke to more than 200 journalists when I was in Aleppo. I sent a letter to Obama and one to Angela Merkel. I made a petition that was signed by over 800,000 people. 

It feels helpless. They just ignore us. We sent a message to the UN and said “Don’t look back in time and wish you could have done something.” But now, don’t look back in time and see another film about Idlib and wish you could have done something because we can still do something.

WA: When I tried to make the film, I was very desperate. I knew it might make no difference. At least, if I give the chance for people to see what life means in Aleppo and today like Idlib, maybe something will change. This is the hope that we still live for, more than 6 million people in the world waiting for the minute that Assad will not be in power so we can go back and start our own life as Syrians in Syria.

[We want to] save the history for our children, for our future, for us as human beings. What is the history that we leave behind when we pass away?

AB: Does it make a difference for the rest of the world, for things that may happen elsewhere, to understand this narrative?

HA: I think that the film might change narratives in different ways. It might change people’s minds about women in the film industry. I had calls with several of my friends after the film was at Cannes and got other awards. They were sorry because they had been making jokes about me and How could I let my wife stay?, Why didn’t I send her to Turkey?. I feel that in some way, it’s a small victory against the sexism in the community, the film industry, and even the revolution itself.

AB: As we look at the situation now, it looks like Assad has won and stayed in power.

WA: But, what does that really mean? More than 6 million people around the world are refugees. Most of the cities are totally destroyed. If you just go to the regime areas and how people live there, you will see that its a disaster. There’s more corruption than before, more fear than before. It’s unbelievable that people can clap for this idea about Assad’s victory.

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

© Katharine Cutler (7/31/19) FF2 Media

Second Photo: Anne Barnard, Waad Al-Khateab, Hamza Al-Khateab, and Edward Watts at 51/Fest in IFC Center.

Photo Credits: Jan Lisa Huttner

Top Photo: Waad Al-Khateab filming in Aleppo.

Third Photo: Sama in Aleppo holding a sign.

Fourth Photo: Sama sitting in Hamza’s lap surrounded by other doctors at the hospital in East Aleppo.

Fifth Photo: Waad, Sama, and Hamza looking at a destroyed building in Aleppo.

Bottom Photo: Waad with her camera in Aleppo.

Photo Credits: Channel 4.

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