Rob Salusbury attends a virtual Q&A event with Oscar-winning ‘For Sama’ filmmakers.

Words By Rob Salusbury

Throughout the history of the documentary genre, filmmakers have looked to utilise the format’s huge potential for social change, using increasingly portable cameras and diverse distribution channels to bring light to hidden suffering across the world. For Waad Al-Kateab, the decision to pick up a camera and record the events that were taking place around her during the 2011 Syrian Revolution led to her film For Sama, one of the most vital documents of humanitarian crisis that has ever been produced and a document of raw courage that presented a country still in desperate need of help.

At a recent Q&A session held by the Watersprite Film Festival, Waad, joined by the film’s executive producer Nevine Mabro, explained the origins of the film. “I just joined the protest and started to film… we were activists trying to tell the whole world that this is happening.” They began uploading the footage onto social media sites like YouTube and Facebook to spread their message and bring to light the events that were happening in the country without the distorting filter of journalistic reporting. For Waad, the decision to film was a reflex; she and her friends “knew that we had to record.”

Over the next several years, she would continue filming the events that unfolded in her country as the revolution spiralled into chaos and the regime inflicted monstrous attacks upon their own citizens. During this period, Waad gave birth to her daughter Sama, for whom the film would later be dedicated to. By the time the filmmaker and her family were forced to seek refuge in London in 2016, she had recorded over 500 hours of footage with every single frame bringing an urgent spotlight to the horrific sufferings of the Syrian people. 

Waad explained that looking back over the footage was hard, and described the production process (which stretched over 2 years) as extremely stressful. It was difficult to figure out where to place herself in the film as she “wanted to talk about others” and prioritise their stories, but she eventually realised that, “yes, [she had] to [feature] in the film”; “I realised that maybe the only thing I have to do is fight back, and fight back with this footage”. Her words emphasise just how powerful the film would become as a global mouthpiece for Syria. 

For Sama is an incredibly harrowing experience, and Waad presents us her footage without any sort of filter or distorting agenda; “I’m able to say what I want. Political is personal and personal is political,” she tells us, a striking declaration that asserts the vital importance of these first-hand recordings in enacting political and social change. 

But with this unflinching approach also came dilemmas: “There were moments where I was like ‘I’m not able to do this anymore.’” Waad highlighted the scene in which an ash-covered newborn baby is desperately attempted to be brought back to life. It is a traumatising scene but one that ends in a rush of relief when the baby cries out and opens its eyes; “it was literally delivering so much that I wanted to say,” says Waad, the moment capturing the intense mixture of cautious hope and urgent panic that courses through the country.

For Sama was released last year to widespread critical and audience acclaim, becoming the most nominated documentary ever at the BAFTA awards and also earning an Academy Award nomination. But for Waad, what really mattered was the reaction the film had in Syria. Although she revealed that the film has been banned in the country, she has still received “so many amazing messages from Syrians which were better than all the awards we got.” 

And for those who wish to help make a positive impact on the future of Syria, Waad established the Action for Sama campaign that can be found on social media and can be donated to via their website. As Waad told us in her closing message, she hopes her film will “encourage more people to tell their own stories,” adding that “We can all play a part in this.”

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