South By Southwest 2019 Interview – FOR SAMA directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts

“FOR SAMA is one of the most intimate, epic documentaries about the female experience of war you’ll ever see. Framed as a message from a young mother, Waad al-Kateab, to her daughter Sama, the film tells the story of Waad’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria. She falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama while cataclysmic conflict rises around her. Her camera captures incredible stories of loss, laughter and survival as Waad wrestles with an impossible choice: whether or not to flee the city to protect the life of her baby daughter? But leaving means abandoning the struggle for freedom, for which she has already sacrificed so much.” Directors Waad al-Kateab & Edward Watts on FOR SAMA which screens at the 2019 edition of SxSW Film!

Congratulations on your film playing in at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

BOTH: This is our first time here and our film is having a worldwide premiere, so we’ll definitely be attending all the screenings.

So how did you both get into this movie-making business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

WAAD: I started as an activist filming the protests in Syria with my mobile phone, then I started using a camera and I taught myself how to film and edit. I worked on news reports and short documentaries. Everything I did was inside Syria, a mix between the human and political stories.

EW: I started out making tea as a runner in a documentary production company and worked my way up from there. I’ve been working as a director for over ten years now and have made more than twenty films, both documentary and narrative around the world, specialising in stories of hope from the conflicts and humanitarian disasters around the world.

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

WAAD: I was documenting life in Aleppo where I lived. Death was always around us, that is why I felt that each moment of life had value. However, I started capturing my personal story without any plans, hoping that one day I could do a film. After we left Aleppo, I had a huge archive of footage. Because of my work with Channel 4 News, the team spoke to me about the possibilities of making a long film. Nevine set up a meeting with Siobhan from Channel 4  who commissioned it. She introduced me to Ed, my fellow Director.

That was two years ago. These two years were very difficult for me, another level of suffering where I relived everything I went through again and again. But the team cared so much about the story, respected my fight, my beliefs and cared so much about what Syria had suffered. They helped me a lot and supported me. Without their power, nothing would have happened. They carried the weight on their shoulders as much as I did, and felt the same responsibility of telling the world the story as it happened regardless of how hard the process was. I know that the process the film went through from start to finish was unusual. I believe that everyone put the film above their own interests. That’s what gave me strength to continue.

EW: I became involved in the project after Waad had made it out of Aleppo with all the footage from five years of her life. That was over a year and a half ago. It has been a huge undertaking to create a film that captures the essence of her life and experience over that time period. But thankfully we have had a brilliant team from our editors Chloe and Simon, to Mow our assistant producer, Jenny our Production Manager and more. Most importantly it has been such a pleasure to work with Waad, sharing ideas, arguments and experiments to help create a film that does justice to her extraordinary life and the story of the Syria uprising.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

WAAD: My loss is what made me keep going. The nightmares I saw every single night. When I looked at my daughters and thought how I will explain the story to them? My husband Hamza, my friends, the Syrian people deserve their stories to be told. Also my duty to Aleppo, my responsibility to show what happened. That’s what I was doing there all along.

EW: It’s the subject matter. I try as much as possible only to work on films that are about subjects very close to my heart, that feel they can make a positive impact on our tumultuous world. When you believe that what you’re doing can make a difference, no matter how small, it helps to give you the grit to go on through the long nights. That and an IV drip of cappuccinos. And the love of an amazing woman.   

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

WAAD: The biggest challenge was to balance between Waad the mother, the activist and my relationship to Aleppo and Waad the Director who should lead the story.

EW: This was the most challenging project I have ever worked on: the quantity of footage; the horrific violence in it; the complexity of the story and the breadth of the history that we were trying to cover made it an incredibly intricate web to weave. In the face of those challenges, there were so many rewarding moments. Two stand out: the first when we hit upon the FOR SAMA framing device as the spine of the story. The second when Waad watched an edit of the very end of the film and said it exactly conveyed what she felt about Aleppo, the emotions she felt at the heart of her story.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

WAAD: I changed my camera a few times over the 5 years. The main camera was a Canon 7D and the rest of it filmed by Sony PXW-X70/4K HD and some of it by mobile phone. The footage was mixed between two themes: the journalist who documented people’s lives and stories, and the woman and mother who was trying to capture her personal moments. I filmed a lot because my concern was that we will die in silence without anyone ever knowing our complete story.    

EW: All I have to add to what Waad said is that our guiding principle in crafting the film was that everything should be rooted in her footage, her POV, so that you are literally experiencing the story through her eyes. This we achieved 99% of the time, with only a couple of archive shots borrowed to show key points in the escalation of the conflict. The archive was chosen to match stylistically the rough, immediate style of what Waad shot herself.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

BOTH: It’s fantastic to bring the film out into the world, especially in such a sophisticated crowd as the audiences at Austin. We can’t wait to hear people’s reactions and to have the chance to highlight the issues raised in the film.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

BOTH: We’re hoping for a robust festival run prior to our theatrical release by PBS Distribution later this year to be followed by an eventual broadcast on PBS in the States and Channel 4 in the UK.

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

BOTH: We’d love to screen the film at the United Nations Security Council, so that the Russians are confronted with the reality of their intervention in Syria and the rest of the world witnesses what the consequences of their inaction were for Syrian women and children – so that hopefully such things never happen again. We’d also like to show the film to UN agencies such as UNICEF and WHO in the hope they will change their policies in the future to support local healthcare providers on the ground, like Hamza’s hospital.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive like talking, texting, leaving halfway, etc, through a movie?

BOTH: We both believe in the freedom for people to choose how to behave as they see fit. We understand that our film is not easy to watch so we will respect people’s decision if they feel they cannot make it through to the end.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

WAAD: Believe in the importance of what you are doing as a storyteller, the difference you could make. It doesn’t matter how small or big is it. Believe that now or in 20 years it will have an effect .

EW: There is one thing. The most important. Without it, you’re doomed. With it, your progress is assured. And that’s simply to know why you’re making films. What do you want to say? If your reason for making films is to accrue fame and awards, you’re unlikely to get anywhere. But if you have a good reason – to make people laugh or cry or to celebrate jazz music or the life of Dorothea Lange or whatever – then eventually you will get your chance.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

EW: I saw Birds of Passage at TIFF last year, which I thought was one of the most beautiful layered films I’ve ever seen.

WAAD: This is the first film festival I’ve really ever been to!

This is one of the many film titles playing at SxSW 2019. For more information on this and any other title playing in the festival, point your browser to!

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