FOR SAMA. Sama pictured in September 2016, in the bombarded east of the city with a placard in response to US presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s infamous gaffe “What’s Aleppo” – Courtesy of Channel 4, Copyright Waad al-Kateab.
FOR SAMA. Sama pictured in September 2016, in the bombarded east of the city with a placard in response to US presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s infamous gaffe “What’s Aleppo” – Courtesy of Channel 4, Copyright Waad al-Kateab.

Winner of the award for Best Documentary at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival For Sama documents Waad al-Kateab’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to her daughter Sama. The documentary film takes the form of a letter from Waad al-Kateab to Sama. For Sama directed by Waad al-Kateab along with Edward Watts opens in US theaters on July 26.

Waad lives with Sama’s father, a doctor in the last surviving hospital in rebel-held Aleppo. Surrounded on all sides, bombarded daily by the Syrian regime and Russian air force, Waad fears they may be killed at any moment. So she crafts a filmed message to her one-year-old daughter to explain who her parents were, what they were fighting for and why Sama came into this world – a record for the young girl in case they don’t survive.

Waad’s story begins in 2012 when she was a student studying marketing at Aleppo University. Protests against the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad reach the university and Waad is one of the first to join. Her camera captures the joy and optimism of those early days. She meets a young medic in the protests called Hamza and with a group of friends they continue to demand freedom even as the regime resorts to greater and greater violence to crush them, eventually engulfing the city in full-blown war. They lose friends and narrowly escape death themselves at the hand of snipers, airstrikes and barrel bombs, scenes all captured on camera. Then, in the midst of the storm, Hamza proposes marriage.

FOR SAMA. Hamza, Sama and the staff of al-Quds hospital, which Hamza set up in 2012 in east Aleppo. Courtesy of Channel 4, Copyright Waad al-Kateab.
FOR SAMA. Hamza, Sama and the staff of al-Quds hospital, which Hamza set up in 2012 in east Aleppo. Courtesy of Channel 4, Copyright Waad al-Kateab.

They marry, move into their first home and before long Waad is pregnant, scenes recognizable to any young couple anywhere in the world. The difference is their honeymoon plays out against an increasingly apocalyptic war. When the Russians intervene to save the regime in September 2015, they unleash ferocious violence against the rebels. Yet despite their fear, Waad and Hamza decide not to flee the city as so many have done, but to stay and continue the fight for freedom. She realizes that the struggle is no longer only for them, it’s for the future of her daughter. Sama is born on the 1st January 2016, a small ray of hope in the chaos.

FOR SAMA. Waad, Hamza and Sama look at graffiti they painted on a bombed-out building, protesting against the forced exile of the civilian population of east Aleppo by forces of the Syrian regime and their Russian and Iranian allies, December 2016. Courtesy of Channel 4, Copyright Waad al-Kateab.
FOR SAMA. Waad, Hamza and Sama look at graffiti they painted on a bombed-out building, protesting against the forced exile of the civilian population of east Aleppo by forces of the Syrian regime and their Russian and Iranian allies, December 2016. Courtesy of Channel 4, Copyright Waad al-Kateab.

Sama’s first year of life will see the last year of the battle for the city, a time of almost unimaginable darkness. The regime and its allies resort to every imaginable atrocity to crush the rebels. Hamza’s hospital is bombed. They are besieged and witness attacks by chlorine gas, cluster and barrel bombs, massacres of women and children. Yet amid it all, Waad and Hamza have the joy of parenthood, witnessing the first weeks of their baby daughter’s life, full of fun and laughter. She gives them the strength to endure and inspiration to all of the last band of rebels.

Eventually, they are overwhelmed and forced into exile. In the exodus, the family pack their things and with tears in their eyes, bid farewell to the shattered city, the place where their dream of freedom was born and where it died. Yet they carry their daughter with them, an eternal symbol of the love and hope that the violence of tyrants cannot destroy

For Sama directed by Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
For Sama directed by Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts. Waad al-Kateab filming the ruins of a building destroyed by bombing in besieged east Aleppo, October 2016. Courtesy of Channel 4, Copyright Waad al-Kateab.

Waad al-Kateab became a citizen journalist in 2011 after protests broke out across Syria against the Assad regime, and in January 2016 she began documenting the horrors of Aleppo for Channel 4 News. The reports she made on the conflict in Syria became the most watched pieces on the British news program and won 24 awards, including the 2016 International Emmy for breaking news coverage. She and her family were eventually evacuated from Aleppo in 2016. FOR SAMA is her first feature film.

Edward Watts is an Emmy award-winning, BAFTA nominated filmmaker who has directed over 20 documentary films for international broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS in America. His 2015 film Escape from ISIS received numerous international awards including an International Emmy and BAFTA nomination for Best Current Affairs Documentary. FOR SAMA is his first feature film.

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