The scene is in his Oscar-nominated documentary “For Sama” and winner of the Bafta last Sunday. For three long minutes, we followed graphic images of the emergency delivery and the work on the practically dead baby, until a miracle happened.
“At that time, I thought I had literally gone mad,” said Al-Kateab, who spent five years living in the city bombarded by the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad. “When the baby finally opened his eyes, I took my eyes off the camera to see if it was true.”
The images were released on the news of the time.
Although Al-Kateab does not shy away from blood and even civil war corpses, “For Sama” is an extremely personal and delicate film. At 20, she starts recording peaceful protests at her university and falls in love with her best friend. The two get married, get pregnant and decide to stay in Aleppo even when the city is under siege.
Her husband is a doctor and leads the only one of the city’s eight hospitals that has not been attacked by Assad’s allied Russian forces. Amid the ruins of Aleppo, residents try to normalize chaos by playing chess on the sidewalk or distracting children by painting a wrecked bus. And Al-Kateab captures everything, including her pregnancy and her first-time mother fears.
Pregnant at war
“I was sure we wouldn’t make it out alive. Every moment with the camera, I thought it might be my last chance to shoot,” said the 29-year-old director, in a Hollywood cinema after the film was shown. “So I needed to be strong to keep shooting. Because if I die in five minutes, the images can survive without me.”
The film is dedicated to his daughter, Sama, in an attempt to explain her reasons for staying in Aleppo. The pregnancy brought him new perspectives and a style of filming. She starts talking to the camera, as if leaving a message to Sama. “Filming gave me a reason to live and make sense of that nightmare,” he said.
“As a woman, I heard a lot, but I also heard a lot,” she said. “I had access to women because they saw me pregnant and they saw me with my three-month-old baby and then six months. They wanted to talk to me because they knew I would understand their experiences.”
Al-Kateab enlisted the help of an English director, Edward Watts, to select the five years of filmed material. The duo, who signs with the direction, spent another two years in the editing process. Watts explains that his role was to prioritize the experience of the director and the residents of Aleppo, creating a narrative to which people outside Syria could connect.
The conflict continues
The film launched a online campaign the end of bombing hospitals. “It seems absurd to campaign for it, but last Saturday they hit a hospital in Syria,” said Watts. “Even a simple tweet of solidarity to the cause, to tell the Syrians that you know what’s going on there, means a lot.”
While in the United States on account of Oscar, the directors went to Washington and New York to speak with politicians and participate in protests at the headquarters of the United Nations.
The director explained her struggle on Twitter: “I went to the UN not because I think it will change something,” she wrote. “The world abandoned us for nine years to be killed in every way possible. But I believe that the most difficult thing is to be killed in silence. So we continue to raise our voices for those in Idlib.”
Idlib, a city 60 km from Aleppo, has been under attack by the Assad regime and Russian allied forces for months. More than 150,000 had to leave their homes in January alone. Aleppo was also a target again, in a way that had not been seen since 2016, when Al-Kateab and his family were forced to leave the city.
Today, the director lives in exile in London and works on Channel 4 News, one of the producers of “For Sama”. The documentary was the one that received the most nominations in the history of Bafta, an award from the British Academy of Cinema and TV, on Sunday night. He received four nominations and won a best documentary.
At the Oscars, the duo competes with the Brazilian “Democracia em Vertigem”, by Petra Costa, and another film about the civil war in Syria, “The Cave”. The three compete with the favorite “American Industry” (USA) and “Honeyland” (Macedonia). The award takes place next Sunday, 2/9.