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Courage Under Fire Award: Waad al-Kateab Captures Life During Wartime

By Valentina Valentini

For Sama, shot, directed and produced by Waad al-Kateab, is a harrowing love letter to al-Kateab’s daughter Sama, who was born on the last day of 2015, during near-constant airstrikes and bombings on Aleppo by the Russian-backed Syrian dictatorial government. The movie—like other documentaries about the Syrian conflict—focuses on the incredible will of the people, even in the face or horrific events. But this film goes further than any of the others with its unapologetic portrayal of children dying, of parents in agony, of families split apart and of what it means to bring life into a world like that.

"Under the regime, cameras weren’t respected," says al-Kateab, who earned two IDA Documentary Award nominations (Best Director and Best Feature) with her co-director, Edward Watts, along with the Courage Under Fire Award. "They were a tool used by the government for its propaganda and even an independent filmmaker didn’t have the freedom to film what they wanted."

When the revolution began in 2011, al-Kateab was majoring in economics at the University of Aleppo, and the government was denying the uprising, insisting that it wasn’t happening and that everything was fine. So, al-Kateab picked up her phone and began filming what she saw and what she was experiencing. (Later, she had access to a Handycam and other filming tools through her work with Arabic news organizations and Channel4.)

For the next five years, al-Kateab documented both the evolution of the conflict and the course of her life during the conflict—gatherings with her friends, some of whom would later perish in the war; her wedding to her best friend, Hamza, who was also a doctor running the only remaining hospital in Aleppo; her daughter's birth; and their eventual forced evacuation. While the Courage Under Fire Award is given to documentarians "displaying conspicuous bravery in the pursuit of truth," this is the first time the award has been given to someone who had actually been living through and documenting a traumatic crisis such as the Syrian War, from its beginnings.

As the war intensified, al-Kateab abandoned her pursuit of an economics degree; her world was forever changed. As a documentarian and a journalist, armed with minimal equipment and driven by a quest for truth and justice, al-Kateab produced work for Arabic channels, CNN and Channel4. She earned over 24 international awards, including an International Emmy. And this was all before the crafting of For Sama began.

"This [Courage Under Fire] Award is so special, and I know they don’t give it out every year," says al-Kateab. "I'm the first [honoree] who lived with the people, who was part of what was going on in my film, and I hope that helps people like you, people at the IDA and others who never will be able to experience something like that, to connect with my story."

Documentary talked with al-Kateab in London, where she settled after leaving Syria in December 2016, with her two daughters and husband about why she made the film and why it's so important to get it out to the public. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: You were getting a degree in economics. What prompted you to pick up a camera?

WAAD AL-KATEAB: I joined the protests just as many other people did. The regime was denying anything was happening, saying that we don't have a revolution in Syria, that all these protests were fake. But we were seeing it with our own eyes, and we were participating, but the media was ignoring us. Five minutes maximum we could protest before the security forces would come and beat people, hurt students; we didn’t have anything to fight back with, but we had small phones. We had to use them to record what was happening; it was a battle for existence.

DOCUMENTARY: How did you get that first camera we see in the film?

WAK: That first proper camera was a Sony Handycam, which I got from one of my cousins, who was also at the university. I made some holes in my bags and I would put the camera inside, since it was so small. The first time I took this camera out was in the big protest in May 2012. I felt like I didn’t care what the price was, even if people recognized me, even if the security forces would come later to arrest me, because for me that was the biggest protest I could make. I did go back to documenting on my phone, but in July of 2012, when the Free Syrian Army gained control of eastern Aleppo, I moved there. The security forces weren’t allowed there, and I was given a Canon 550 DSLR camera from Orient TV, a local and independent news source. I did a short documentary for them about the university movement.

DOCUMENTARY: When you left Syria, did you have all of your footage with you or had you transferred it out already?

WAK: I had sent a very small amount to Channel4 News, but because the internet connections were so bad, that was difficult. I had all my archives—12 hard drives, two of them from a desktop and the rest external hard drives—and I put them all in one bag. I was three months into my pregnancy with Taima, so I put the bag like a backpack but on my belly and had a big jacket around me and Sama in front of that. I just had to keep the footage between me and Sama because that seemed like the safest place where I could have them. We were so lucky we weren’t searched at the checkpoint; it was so clear that I had something on my belly. They just opened the door and looked at us and said we could go. But the risk wasn’t over. I had to get [the hard drives] over the Turkish border, as well. So, I sent them with three different people and each of us had a few hard drives to carry across the border. Because if this material didn’t make it out, what was the point of me living through all those bad experiences? Of course, I care about Sama and Taima and myself and my husband, but also, this material was worth my life. The most important thing for me is showing this reality to people who otherwise wouldn’t experience it. 


Valentina Valentini is a writer traveling the world in search of her next story. She covers entertainment, travel, food, culture and people for Vanity FairBBC TravelVariety and many more. Follow her adventure at @valentina_writes.