The Oscar-nominated documentary “For Sama” begins with a closeup of an infant wrapped in a pink and white blanket. Her mom is holding the camera and singing a lullaby. Before long, her song is interrupted by the ominous sound of low-flying aircraft, followed by a massive boom.
Such moments had become routine in the life of filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, her husband Hamza, and their daughter Sama. Al-Kateab filmed her husband, a doctor, as he struggled to save lives in East Aleppo as it was under constant bombardment by the Assad regime and the Russians. Circumstances became increasingly dire when pro-Assad forces began targeting hospitals and schools. But al-Kateab was determined to stay in Aleppo and keep her camera rolling.
Al-Kateab had left her home in the Syrian countryside at age 18 to study at the University of Aleppo. Two years later, in 2011, the Syrian Revolution began. At a time when it seemed like real change was possible, al-Kateab started filming activists at her university.
Eventually she left school and moved to East Aleppo to document the civilian resistance against Bashar al-Assad, who would unleash bombs and chemical weapons on his own people.
When al-Kateab joined us in the studio, she remembered moving into a hospital a few years after the war began and starting to document day-to-day life in East Aleppo.
As the war dragged on, bringing horrific death and destruction, al-Kateab and her family endured. Al-Kateab became a wife and a mother. “For Sama" captures attempts at normalcy and even joyous moments, despite the brutality of the war.
In late 2016, al-Kateab and her husband and daughter were forced to flee Syria. At this point, she was three months pregnant with her second child. While her priority was her family’s safety, she also had to think about how to get 12 hard drives full of footage out of the country. She knew if pro-Assad forces discovered it at a checkpoint, they’d confiscate it.
Al-Kateab tells us how she smuggled that footage out of Syria in the dead of night. She put her hard drives in a bag close to her body and put her daughter on top of that. Then al-Kateab and Watts had to carve 90 minutes out of those hundreds of hours of footage. That process took two years.
It was also late in the game when they realized that they had to rearrange scenes in the film, and dedicate the project to Sama. At first, producers hesitated to make last-minute changes, but Watts and al-Kateab agreed the final product was more powerful. Plus, it earned an Oscar nomination. “For Sama” is currently streaming for free on Frontline’s website.