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“It Is Not Just War. It Is Life”: Acclaimed Doc “For Sama” Offers Rare Glimpse into War-Torn Syria

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We look at the award-winning documentary feature titled “For Sama,” a devastating account of war-torn Syria told through the eyes of director Waad al-Kateab. She filmed hundreds of hours of footage in her native Aleppo to create a stunning depiction of life during wartime. Amid airstrikes and attacks on hospitals, Waad falls in love with one of the last remaining doctors in Aleppo, gets married and has a baby girl, Sama, to whom the film is dedicated. When protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad first began in 2011, Waad al-Kateab was a young economics student who began filming on a cellphone. For five years, she documented her own life and the lives of those around her as the Assad regime intensified its brutal response to the uprising. She eventually gathered hundreds of hours of footage. Ahead of the film’s release in the U.S. next Thursday, we speak with Waad al-Kateab and her husband Hamza al-Kateab, a doctor and the co-founder and former director of the Al Quds Hospital in Aleppo.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Syria, where Reuters reports airstrikes killed 12 and injured dozens more Tuesday at a market in the northwest province of Idlib. This is the latest in a Russian-backed offensive by Syria’s military in northwestern Syria that’s killed more than 600 people and at least 157 children in the past three months, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The attacks have reportedly targeted schools and hospitals.

More than half a million people have died in Syria since the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. As demonstrations broke out, a young economics student began filming on a cellphone in her native city of Aleppo. For five years, Waad al-Kateab documented her own life and the lives of those around her as the Assad regime intensified its brutal response to the protests. She eventually gathered hundreds of hours of footage. In the course of her stunning award-winning documentary feature, titled For Sama, Waad falls in love with one of the last remaining doctors in Aleppo, gets married and has a baby girl, Sama, to whom the film is dedicated. This is the film’s trailer.

WAAD AL-KATEAB: [translated] Aleppo, my city.

PROTESTER: [translated] Our revolution is peaceful! Muslims and Christians together!

WAAD AL-KATEAB: [translated] I keep filming. It gives me a reason to be here. This is insane. We’re getting this every day. None of us had any idea…

Hello, Dr. Hamza!

… how our old lives would be changed forever.

Hamza, I’m pregnant.

Sama, Sama.

Sama, I’ve made this film for you. I need you to understand what we were fighting for. I love you so much, even more than the snow. There’s lots of airstrikes today, right? Sama, I know you understand what’s happening. I can see it in your eyes. You never cry like a normal baby would.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Get inside!

WAAD AL-KATEAB: [translated] That’s what breaks my heart.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] The hospital has been bombed.

WAAD AL-KATEAB: [translated] My daughter’s in there.

Sama, will you ever forgive me?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer of the critically acclaimed, award-winning feature documentary, For Sama. It’s directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. The film will be released in the United States next Thursday, screening first in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

To talk more about the film and the war it documents, we’re joined here in New York by the director, Waad al-Kateab. Also with us, Dr. Hamza al-Kateab, a doctor and co-founder and former director of the Al Quds Hospital in Aleppo. He is Waad’s husband and features prominently in the film.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I know you just flew in from London here to New York. It is great to have you with us. Go back to your time as a student of economics and your decision to go to Aleppo to start to document what was happening there.

WAAD AL-KATEAB: Thanks for having us, first. And it’s really, like, very heartbreaking and sad, you know, to go back to that great moment when the uprising started in Syria, when we felt that, really, we don’t just can change our life, but also we will change the world, and the feeling, the hope that we have, the powerful, about we can really do something to change our life—and the dream of the freedom, all these great principles that we were grow up on, but we didn’t thought that we will have it in Syria as country. And this moment was just very, very important for us. And it was very also—there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation because of the propaganda by the Assad regime at that moment, so it was just really important to document this moment and save it to the history, to our life, to the next generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?

WAAD AL-KATEAB: I was born in Aleppo.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened. Start with the protests in 2011.

WAAD AL-KATEAB: It was just normal life. I was a student. Like, I had that dream about when I will finish, I will graduate from economics, and then I will go maybe to Germany to have master’s and start like a new life outside, and then I will be back later. But I didn’t have that feeling of belonging to Syria as a country, and I wasn’t feeling that I’m the citizen, Syrian citizen. We weren’t that proud of before.

And then, when the revolution started, we just felt that we are in the moment where we can really change our life and make the country that we want, build our own life in the way that we really respect ourselves and respect the people we have, respect the government that it should be for us. And we’ve just started protesting, while at the same time everyone who was activist was trying to make a role for this cause. And that’s why I felt I can film. And I love filming. I love—I really believe in the picture. And that’s why I just started to document this moment. But no one had any idea about what the future will hold for us.

AMY GOODMAN: You never stopped.


AMY GOODMAN: You just seemed to have that camera on all the time.

WAAD AL-KATEAB: Yeah. And really, it was very, like, gradually to the moment that you don’t think about what you are trying to do or why you’re doing this. It’s more about just living the life and saving these moments because you feel that at any moment it could be ended. You could be killed like by bombing, by shelling, by anyone arrested you because you are just opposition. And this just was very, very important.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, the film is extraordinary on many levels, but also the sense, it’s quite visceral. I mean, the audience feels as though they’re literally immersed in the war. And it’s also told from a perspective that’s very unusual for a so-called war film. You’re not on the front lines. You’re in a hospital. You’re in the room in which you are living with your husband and then your little girl. And one of the—at one of the screenings in England, Channel 4 host Jon Snow said, in fact, that you captured a female perspective of a masculine war. Do you agree with that?

WAAD AL-KATEAB: It’s more about, you know, I feel everything was really normal. I had no idea about I will make this film, but I just feel—like, believed in the picture, that this is really important to be saved, more than anything about, you know, I will do a film, I will speak in the perspective of a woman or a female or a mother or whatever. I just was trying to live my life normally. And it was just a life mixed between the journalist and—like, a journalist in one moment and a mother in a second moment. And the film was just mixed between these two feelings about normal life under the war. And as I was really amazed with the life there, how powerful people were there, how the sadness, how was the happiness, everything I was seeing in my own eyes, I just felt that this is really—should people outside know about this and know about the war in Syria. It’s not just war. It’s more about life. And people deserve to be alive.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Hamza, let me just—you were a doctor when the protests began, but you were based in western Aleppo. And when rebels took control, the opposition took control, of eastern Aleppo, you made the decision to move. Why?

DR. HAMZA AL-KATEAB: Because of, like, we’ve seen a lot of areas where the oppositions were holding and taking control in Syria, and the regime immediately start to shelling with different kind of weapons. We’ve seen, like, in Daraa, in Homs. So, when it was announced that that east part of Aleppo is like liberated from the regime and it’s controlled by the opposition, all the images I had of that, like YouTube clips that I’ve seen through the previous year, of like children, people being shelled and attacked—and then I decided just to go there. Like, I’m an activist. I was protesting. And I’m a doctor. So, that’s the place that I need to be there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Hamza al-Kateab, well, you weren’t married at the time you were—I mean, you sort of fell in love through that lens of your camera, I think. And can you describe the setting up of the Al Quds Hospital? And who was brought in there? Who were you treating?

DR. HAMZA AL-KATEAB: Yeah. The first time I moved to east part of Aleppo, there was like—it was a very chaotic situation, start of a shelling. People don’t used to that. A lot of people fled out of the city to the countryside or to western part of Aleppo, because they don’t know what’s going to happen. And like after two months, a lot of civilians came back to Aleppo, and, like, the population reached—like, in 2013, it reached like 1.5 million people in east part of Aleppo.

And that’s when like I and a group of doctors decided that we should set a hospital that’s like a non-trauma hospital, should be like oncology, pediatrics, internal medicine, cardiology, because most of the focus of the NGOs was about trauma and surgeries, while there are so many other diseases that people might have. And that’s when we decided to start Al Quds Hospital. And it was previously a private hospital, but it was abandoned. Nobody was there. And I went there with like two midwives, five nurses and a few volunteers. And we started like to remove the dust, clean everything. It started with one clinic and eight-beds ward. And like by the end of 2016, we had around like 56 beds and so many specialities, and the staff was 110 people. So the main idea was to have a non-trauma hospital, but it ended as the last hospital in Aleppo.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And when you founded the hospital—because, of course, the Assad regime targeted hospitals as well as schools, and eight out of the nine hospitals in Aleppo had been destroyed—now, was that the case when you started this hospital? And the fact that you recounted this joke in Aleppo, “If you want to be safe, you should go to the front line. That’s the safest place in Aleppo.” So, could you explain that and what exactly the situation was with medical care when you started Al Quds?

DR. HAMZA AL-KATEAB: We started Al Quds at the end of 2012, beginning of 2013. And at that time, there was maybe five hospitals in Aleppo. The number increased with like more NGOs trying to provide help. The first time we had like witnessed a hospital attack was in a hospital called Dar al-Shifa. That was like also at the beginning of 2013 or the end of 2012. And a nurse and a doctor was killed during that attack. And throughout the years, the regime has become more aggressive. So, it was starting with the mortar shell—mortar attacks, and then aircrafts attack, and then the Russians interfere, and that was like the most brutal thing.

And like in the middle of 2013, we realized that the regime is not trying to attack the militias or the opposition fighters. He’s trying to break the will of the people, that there is no way you can live out of my control. So the main target was the hospitals, health facilities, bakeries, electricity power supplies, schools. And that’s why—like, we know that people who were living there—like, there are several massacres happened at the city, but the front line, like, there’s no bullets even. Nothing happened. And we started to know, like, OK, if you want to have a rest, just go to the front line, and you will be safe.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from the film, For Sama.

WAAD AL-KATEAB: [translated] Sama, things have got so bad now. Your dad can’t leave the hospital, so we live here now. This is our room. Behind those pictures are sandbags to protect from shelling. Yes, I’m coming. We do our best to make it feel like home.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from For Sama. Sama, the baby who was born in the midst of this war, Waad, that you document, from the moment you see your pregnancy test to telling Hamza, to raising your child in Aleppo.

WAAD AL-KATEAB: Yeah. Sama was the point that—she was the hope of our small family and small life. And this was—the same things was about all the children who were born in that area and in that place, which is, for a long, long time, there was many, many people who have children and trying just to live normal life under this bad circumstances. And it was just, you know, like people—Syrian people want to live in Syria in a normal way, as much as they can under all this shelling and bombardment, and just, you know, about how the violence was, around how Assad regime, and then, later on, the Russians, were trying just to kill, as Hamza mentioned, the people’s will and the people’s, like, feeling about life in the city, more than about really having a fight, fighting against the fighters who were there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you say, Waad—as you said, the regime did not target the rebels. Can you talk about how the composition of the opposition to Assad changed, and that some areas in Aleppo were in fact held by ISIS and al-Nusra? How did you work with those areas? Did you go into those areas? And what was responsible for those people coming in and, as you say, trying to hijack the revolution?

WAAD AL-KATEAB: Yeah. It’s more about, you know, the—let’s say, the war in Syria was between Assad and opposition against Assad. But the main thing’s about how the regime was trying not just to have, like, attacking these areas, but also he was trying to increase having al-Nusra and ISIS groups in the area. And as we—like, we, as Syrians, we see that as facts. And many other centers and study cases was very clear about this issue, that, in 2012, the regime released all the people who were in their prisons, which they became later, later, an al-Nusra and ISIS group. So, it was more about the regime knows what is going on, and he was pushing them to be like armed and to be more Islamics and also the violence, which is indirect way to make people more, like, have this bad reaction against what’s going on.

So, people can really—don’t have the right way to do their own, like, defense against what was happening. And we lived with these people in many places. We faced ISIS in 2013. And many people who we know, they were arrested. And we could—we, too. I lost my cousin in 2013, and he’s kidnapped by ISIS, and, really, we don’t know anything about him until now. So, ISIS, al-Nusra and the Assad was all against the real people, the activists, who were having their own dream about the freedom and the democracy. And this is why the revolution started. And this is what we still need until now.

And, you know, it’s more about like controlling the violence that was happening, and just the idea about—we left Syria three years ago. We were displaced out of Aleppo. And we’ve had all this experience about the shelling, bombing and every bad situation, the siege, and they threaten to be death or displaced. And now, three years later, the same scenario happening again in the last place, in Idlib, which is like just unbelievable that—how the world is still watching this and just speak about ISIS, which has really did nothing comparing with the regime violence. And if we will just go to any center, which they document all this deaths and like bad crimes—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’ll do Part 2, put it online at Waad al-Kateab and Hamza al-Kateab. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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