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A New Mother Stays In Syria: 'For Sama' Is The Movie She Made For Her Baby

Journalist and filmmaker Waad al-Kateab filmed the documentary <em>For Sama </em>in her hometown of Aleppo, Syria. "You could be killed at any moment," Kateab says. You are always "expecting something worse." <em>For Sama</em> will be in theaters July 26 and distributed by <em>Frontline</em> and PBS.
Journalist and filmmaker Waad al-Kateab filmed the documentary For Sama in her hometown of Aleppo, Syria. "You could be killed at any moment," Kateab says. You are always "expecting something worse." For Sama will be in theaters July 26 and distributed by Frontline and PBS.

Syrian filmmaker and journalist Waad al-Kateab says she will always remember a mother shouting at her: "Film me! Film me! Let the world see what's happening!" At the woman's side was a dead infant — not older than a year, Kateab recalls. She was "trying to tell him that she brought him milk during the siege," Kateab tells NPR.

This was just one of the devastating scenes Kateab recorded in the years that followed the outbreak of violent revolution in Syria in 2011. Since then, more than 5 million Syrians have fled and sought asylum around the world, and more than 6 million have been displaced within Syria. Kateab chose to stay, to film "everything around" her for five dangerous years — and has turned her visceral footage into For Sama, a film written as a letter to her own newborn daughter. Her work earned the award for best documentary at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

The film is a series of intimate portraits of daily life, marriage and motherhood in Aleppo — Kateab's hometown under siege. She chronicles her own growing family, as well as the larger community of activists and professionals who remained in the city.

It was important to bear witness, Kateab says: "This is the most important thing I can do — for these people and for my daughter."

Hamza al-Kateab, Waad's husband, continued to practice medicine in Aleppo, as other doctors fled the violence. The young couple met while studying at university, prior to the start of conflict. They were involved in demonstrations and protests against the Assad regime and as violence broke out, they felt an obligation to fight for their home — for themselves, their community and their daughter.

They were a "normal family" wanting to live a "normal life" in a "crazy time," Kateab recalls. They felt a responsibility for the future — "and that was Sama."

Kateab, who collaborated on the film with British director Edward Watts, narrates the documentary. "I think over 99% of what you see in the film was shot by Waad ... so that you are completely rooted in her perspective," Watts tells NPR.

When Kateab became pregnant, she and Hamza had to decide whether they should raise their first child in the city they called home, when that home had become a war zone. "We knew that that was a big responsibility," she says. "But at the same time, that was a big step for us to belong more to the land ... to Aleppo as a city, to our dream for freedom."

She describes their decision to stay in Aleppo as "very complicated and very simple at the same time." She and her husband had experienced moments of great happiness and sadness there: "We grow up with these people ... we are part of this community," she says. To leave their loved ones would be "hell," she says.

Watts hopes the film underscores the "incredible breadth" of hope and humanity of the Syrians who stayed through the conflict: "In the darkest moments, people are telling jokes to keep their spirits up, and people are trying to support each other ..." he says. "We wanted to capture that movement between light and dark, which is actually what this human experience of conflict is actually all about."

Whether it is the small delight of two friends sharing a persimmon or the celebratory milestone of a wedding, Kateab's footage shows how communities can remain resilient.

Kateab's filming in Aleppo ended after she and her family had to evacuate the city in 2016. The family now lives in London, but they hope that Syria and Aleppo — places that Sama, now 3 years old, does not remember — can someday once again be home to her — and to her baby sister.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.