When the Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month, two documentaries about Syria made it through: Feras Fayyad’s The Cave, about a courageous woman doctor running a subterranean hospital outside Damascus, and For Sama, directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, the story of Al-Kateab’s effort to raise her baby daughter in Aleppo as the city was systematically destroyed.
“Before the revolution there’s no Syrian film that made it to the [Oscars’] final five,” Al-Kateab notes. “And for the Academy people to [nominate] these two films, it was for us the best thing that could ever happen.”
Watts adds, “When we were making the film, we were told so often that people didn’t care about Syria anymore, that everyone was exhausted by it. And so to see at this level people engaging and supporting two films about Syria, it gives you hope that actually people do care about the fate of people who are living thousands of miles away.”
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For Sama was produced by the U.K.’s Channel 4 and distributed in the U.S. by PBS (National Geographic released The Cave). As the Oscars approached, Deadline spoke with the For Sama filmmakers about their Academy Award nomination and the journey of bringing the documentary to the screen.
DEADLINE: Most viewers expected For Sama to be nominated. What was your confidence level going into the Oscars announcement?
WAAD AL-KATEAB: I had some feeling before, a while ago that, “Yes, we will make it.” But it’s not clear…And really when you think about all the other films, really great films, but also they have very great people behind them, a very big money machine. And we just felt that we are the little fish through all of this.
EDWARD WATTS: We watched [the nomination announcement] on TV. It was a nerve-wracking thing because of the whole alphabetical order. So it’s first one, cool. Second one, fine. Third one, okay. And then…I was so sure that Honeyland would get a nomination as well because we love those guys, an amazing film. I knew we had to be [announced] before Honeyland. That was in my brain.
DEADLINE: Waad, you shot hundreds of hours of video over the years of siege in Aleppo. How did you and Edward settle on the structure, framing the film as a sort of love letter to your daughter Sama?
AL-KATEAB: We went together through the whole material from minute one to the last and it took us days and weeks to just go through everything.
WATTS: I was writing notes and it ended up even from that first couple of weeks being this 300-page document with names, places, maps, footage, screenshots.
AL-KATEAB: It took us the first, let’s say, six months just to structure the story as a very chronological way for me to understand everything I went through because it was so shocking.
WATTS: This whole process took two years…But within these two years the For Sama idea came within an hour when everything unlocked. And it was suddenly just the structure, the flow, all these different things that we debated and pushed and pulled, about this scene should be in, that scene should be in, how do we balance them. The For Sama [structure] was like our North star, in that we’d been sailing that way and suddenly it was, “Oh, there’s the direction we’re going.”
DEADLINE: You cut an initial version of the film that was more chronological. How did the people at Channel 4 react when you told them about the new structure?
AL-KATEAB: We showed them the first 20 minutes [of the new version] and they were like, “We are not sure if that’s right or not.” We didn’t listen to any one of them [laughs].
DEADLINE: Then you submitted the film to SXSW.
Al-Kateab: SXSW was literally very special because when we applied, we applied with the old version.
WATTS: So then we had to write and say, “Oh that’s great, but we’ve actually got a new one.”
AL-KATEAB: They watched it and they didn’t like it. They liked the previous [version].
WATTS: They were like, “Sometimes we know filmmakers can take their work in a bad direction by working on it too much.” The beautiful thing about South By was that they were so supportive. They were like, “We disagree with you but we’ll support you.” I would die for that festival because everything flowed from South By. If we hadn’t won [the Grand Jury Award], if we hadn’t had the amazing support of the audiences at South By then For Sama might have disappeared and no one would have heard about it. Who knows?
DEADLINE: What is the situation like now in Aleppo, so far as you can tell?
AL-KATEAB: Everything’s still abandoned by the regime…After we left, there were so many people who’ve been arrested just because they live in that area…The regime is just punishing these people because they were supporting [what the Syrian government labels] the “terrorists,” which is us.
WATTS: It’s a vindictive regime. It will never forget these people that fought for freedom, that fought for freedom from it. And it’s just going through these lists getting revenge.
DEADLINE: I noticed on your laptop, Waad, you have a sticker that says, “F**k Assad,” referring to the Syrian president. What would you say to Bashar al-Assad, if you could?
AL-KATEAB: I just want to tell him really nothing lasts forever…I’m sure that a new revolution will come out soon. And everything that happened through these eight years, it will not be for nothing…Whatever Assad did, there’s one day when accountability will happen, when justice will happen and we will see that with our own eyes.
WATTS: I hope he is brought to a court and that we can return to a world where there is a rule of law and people are tried and a process of justice happens, because that’s important for everybody.
AL-KATEAB: He and all his armies and everything he’s trying to do to kill us, [despite that] I’m here, I’m under the light, while he’s hiding in his palace…I’m just one person, I’m 29 now, I don’t have that great education as him or whatever. But what we are doing now is more respected and more appreciated, more than everything he’s tried to do through his whole life.
DEADLINE: How are your preparations going for the big night at the Oscars?
WATTS: At the age of 40 I had to buy my first proper tux…I dragged my wife around London going to tux shop after tux shop.
AL-KATEAB: I’m so excited about it…I have so many ideas, so stressed about how we can [get it all done] on time, how I can use…great people who are Syrians through this platform. I don’t want to just go to any big designer here and just take any dress. I want to clearly present myself as where I am from.
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