Syrian filmmaker and journalist Waad al-Kateab says she will always remember a mother shouting at her: "Film me! Film me! Let the world see what's happening!" At the woman's side was a dead infant — not older than a year, Kateab recalls. She was "trying to tell him that she brought him milk during the siege," Kateab tells NPR.
This was just one of the devastating scenes Kateab recorded in the years that followed the outbreak of violent revolution in Syria in 2011. Since then, more than 5 million Syrians have fled and sought asylum around the world, and more than 6 million have been displaced within Syria. Kateab chose to stay, to film "everything around" her for five dangerous years — and has turned her visceral footage into For Sama, a film written as a letter to her own newborn daughter. Her work earned the award for best documentary at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
The film is a series of intimate portraits of daily life, marriage and motherhood in Aleppo — Kateab's hometown under siege. She chronicles her own growing family, as well as the larger community of activists and professionals who remained in the city.
It was important to bear witness, Kateab says: "This is the most important thing I can do — for these people and for my daughter."
Hamza al-Kateab, Waad's husband, continued to practice medicine in Aleppo, as other doctors fled the violence. The young couple met while studying at university, prior to the start of conflict. They were involved in demonstrations and protests against the Assad regime and as violence broke out, they felt an obligation to fight for their home — for themselves, their community and their daughter.
They were a "normal family" wanting to live a "normal life" in a "crazy time," Kateab recalls. They felt a responsibility for the future — "and that was Sama."
Kateab, who collaborated on the film with British director Edward Watts, narrates the documentary. "I think over 99% of what you see in the film was shot by Waad ... so that you are completely rooted in her perspective," Watts tells NPR.
When Kateab became pregnant, she and Hamza had to decide whether they should raise their first child in the city they called home, when that home had become a war zone. "We knew that that was a big responsibility," she says. "But at the same time, that was a big step for us to belong more to the land ... to Aleppo as a city, to our dream for freedom."
She describes their decision to stay in Aleppo as "very complicated and very simple at the same time." She and her husband had experienced moments of great happiness and sadness there: "We grow up with these people ... we are part of this community," she says. To leave their loved ones would be "hell," she says.
Watts hopes the film underscores the "incredible breadth" of hope and humanity of the Syrians who stayed through the conflict: "In the darkest moments, people are telling jokes to keep their spirits up, and people are trying to support each other ..." he says. "We wanted to capture that movement between light and dark, which is actually what this human experience of conflict is actually all about."
Whether it is the small delight of two friends sharing a persimmon or the celebratory milestone of a wedding, Kateab's footage shows how communities can remain resilient.
Kateab's filming in Aleppo ended after she and her family had to evacuate the city in 2016. The family now lives in London, but they hope that Syria and Aleppo — places that Sama, now 3 years old, does not remember — can someday once again be home to her — and to her baby sister.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We have seen the images - the bombed-out buildings, people digging out the bodies of their loved ones from the rubble. But for many of us, the war in Syria has felt removed, at a distance, something horrible happening very far away. A new film called "For Sama" brings us inside the war - so close, we want to look away, but we can't.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WAAD AL-KATEAB: (Foreign language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)
MARTIN: That's the voice of Waad al-Kateab. In 2011, she was a college student in Aleppo, planning her future. Then the protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad kicked off. She picked up a video camera and started filming - everything. The story she weaves together is of the siege in Aleppo as she lived it, along with her friends who also chose to stay and her husband Hamza, a doctor who ended up running one of the last hospitals in east Aleppo.
Waad al-Kateab collaborated with British film director Edward Watts to turn all of her footage into a feature-length documentary. "For Sama" will air on Frontline this fall. I got a chance to talk with Waad al-Kateab recently, and we discussed not just how she survived the siege but her determination to keep living through every moment.
You fall in love. You get married. You have a beautiful wedding. And you have a baby.
MARTIN: What was that like for you, welcoming this child into the world? Did it change how you thought about the war and your role in it?
AL-KATEAB: The decision to have a baby, we knew that that was big responsibility. But at the same time, it was a very big step for us to be - belong more to the land where we are, to Aleppo as a city, to our dream for the freedom, to our future, too. So...
MARTIN: It was an act to commit to staying.
AL-KATEAB: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
MARTIN: The film does such a beautiful job of both illustrating the horror but also just the beautiful moments of life that is still happening. I'm thinking in particular about the scene about a persimmon. Can you explain this moment? This is your friend...
MARTIN: ...Who loves this kind of fruit. And, I mean, it's a siege.
MARTIN: People are not getting food. They are - at another point, we see this same friend making rice for her family that has bugs in it. It's infested.
MARTIN: There's no fresh produce.
AL-KATEAB: It's more about the hope that gets you through something very simple - through, like, one person who seen that tree, and he just decided to share it to the people who really love our ground. So we've shared this fruit together. And this is the feeling where you knew that you will survive because there's kind of people who care about making - like, you know, it's such a small happiness. And, like, just on your face, for one woman to know that we are really more - have strength more than all the death around us, and we will survive because we are all together in this situation.
MARTIN: May I ask you to describe some of the more horrible moments? I'm thinking in particular about the grief of the mothers because you are there, you are living in the hospital, and you see the bodies of the children.
AL-KATEAB: It's countless, yeah.
AL-KATEAB: You can't really count how many people are - the same day. And such a situation when you feel that you could be next, your daughter could be next, your husband. I know exactly how these mothers feel, and I should really try to transfer this feeling and save it as it is to let the people out, feel and know what's going on, what's happening, what war means. Not just about two sides fighting, but it's about - whole life is destroyed. So one of the powerful scenes to us, the mother who was shouting at me, are you filming?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOR SAMA")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).
AL-KATEAB: And I just felt for one moment that she doesn't want - so I just put the camera down. And she shout again, like, film me. Film me. Let the world see what's happening.
MARTIN: And she is standing next to the body...
AL-KATEAB: Yeah, next to her was her dead child, which is maybe 6 months or 1 year maybe? And when this footage will be out, and people will see this, this is the most important thing I can do for these people.
MARTIN: There's a moment in the film - your dad gets sick. You, Hamza and Sama all leave.
MARTIN: You go to Turkey to visit him. And you could have just stayed there. And you decide to go back in, which is an undertaking because, by this point, the regime has shut down all the roads. So you have to intentionally sneak across the front lines.
MARTIN: Hamza's got the baby strapped to his back. You can hear the bombs going off.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
MARTIN: And a lot of outsiders will watch that scene and come down with all kinds of judgment. Can you walk through how you thought about that decision?
AL-KATEAB: It was very complicated and very simple at the same time. It was just the feeling that we lived in the city at very sensitive moments, at very big moments of sadness and of happiness, too. We are part of this community. It's funny to say this word, but we meant it at that time, that we don't want to be besieged out. For us, you know, to be in - that's the best thing forever.
MARTIN: Then what was it like to be forced to leave?
AL-KATEAB: OK, this is - really was the most difficult moment in all - the journey of everything because, you know, we fought for everything just to stay there and to fight for our freedom, for our better future. And you're just - in one moment, you have no choice to choose what you want. You were forced to flee out.
MARTIN: Did it feel like all those years and all that sacrifice was for nothing?
AL-KATEAB: It's kind of this. And this is what I'm trying to do now, to prove that it wasn't for nothing. This film and this message could be very powerful against the regime, against the Russian, against anyone who let it destroy the will and the dream of the Syrian people. We should really work now and reach out this message to all the world that we are not terrorists. It's not a Syrian war. It's a revolution. And what we fought for, we will have it one day, and we will still fight for this whenever we were and whatever happened.
MARTIN: That's documentary film director Waad al-Kateab. After she and her husband, along with her daughter Sama, left Aleppo in December of 2016, they relocated to Great Britain. And their family has grown since. They welcomed a second daughter. The film is called "For Sama."
(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN HALPERN AND CHRIS RUGGIERO'S "THEME FROM 'MINDING THE GAP'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.