UK, USA 2019
A love letter from a young mother to her daughter, the film tells the story of Waad al-Kateab’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria, as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all 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 her daughter’s life, when leaving means abandoning the struggle for freedom for which she has already sacrificed so much.
This is not just a film for me – it’s my life. I started capturing my personal story without any plan, just filming the protests in Syria on my mobile phone, like so many other activists. I could never have imagined where my journey would take me through those years. The mix of emotions we experienced - happiness, loss, love - and the horrific crimes committed by the Assad regime against ordinary innocent people, was unimaginable ... even as we lived through it.
From the beginning, I found myself drawn to capture stories of life and humanity, rather than focus on the death and destruction which filled the news. And as a woman in a conservative part of Aleppo, I was able to access the experiences of women and children in the city, traditionally off limits to men. That allowed me to show the unseen reality of life for ordinary Syrians, trying to live normal lives amid our struggle for freedom.
At the same time, I continued living my own life. I married and had a child. I found myself trying to balance so many different roles: Waad the mother, Waad the activist, Waad the citizen journalist and Waad the director. All those people both embodied and led the story. Now I feel those different aspects of my life are what gives the film its strength.
I want people to understand that, while this is my story and shows what happened to me and my family, our experience is not unusual. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians experienced the same thing and are still doing so today. The dictator who committed these crimes is still in power, still killing innocent people. Our struggle for justice is as relevant today as it was when the revolution first began.
I felt a great burden of responsibility to the city, its people and to our friends – to tell their stories properly so they will never be forgotten and no one can ever distort the truth of what we lived through.
Making the film was almost as hard as living through the years in Aleppo. I had to re-live everything again and again. Thankfully I worked with a great team who cared so much about me, my story, and Syria.
One person in particular is my fellow director, Edward Watts. He took the burden I carried onto his own shoulders and, with his strength added to my own, we were able to turn the vast complexity of my life and footage into the crafted story you see today.
This is the most important film I have ever worked on. I have been following the Syrian uprising since it began, trying to tell the truth beyond the lies and propaganda that have muddied people’s understanding of what happened in that country. That truth is embodied in the courage, honesty and altruism of Waad, Hamza and Sama. They are extraordinary people; an example to us all in these days of great tumult in the world.
In my documentaries I have always sought to highlight the humour and humanity we share with people living in desperate situations in the far flung corners of the world. That is the truth that will save us, not the false divisions so many people peddle these days. Our failure to stand with ordinary Syrians when they were protesting for their freedom and were brutally crushed by the Assad regime has led directly to so many of the problems that affect us all today, from the birth of ISIS to the rise of the far right, the refugee crisis and the normalisation of indiscriminate assaults against civilian populations in war.
Through Waad’s story, the world can finally see what really happened, understand the depth of our tragic mistakes and hopefully re-discover the steel in our bones to ensure it never happens again. It has been an honour and a privilege to direct this film with her.
In January 2016, Waad al-Kateab started documenting the horrors of Aleppo for Channel 4 News in a series of devastating films simply titled Inside Aleppo.
The reports she made for Channel 4 News on the conflict in Syria, and the most complex humanitarian crisis in the world, became the most watched pieces on the UK news programme – and received almost half a billion views online and won 24 awards – including the 2016 International Emmy for breaking news coverage.
Waad was a marketing student at the University of Aleppo when protests against the Assad regime swept the country in 2011. Like many hundreds of her fellow Syrians, she became a citizen journalist determined to document the horrors of the war.
She taught herself how to film – and started filming the human suffering around her as Assad forces battled rebels for control of Aleppo. She stayed through the devastating siege – documenting the terrible loss of life and producing some of the most memorable images of the six-year conflict. When she and her family were evacuated from Aleppo in December 2016, she managed to get all her footage out.
Waad lives in London with her husband Hamza and two daughters.
Edward Watts is an Emmy award-winning, BAFTA nominated filmmaker who has directed over twenty narrative and documentary films that tell true stories of courage, heroism and humour from across the world, covering everything from war crimes in the Congo to the colourful lives of residents in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
His 2015 film ESCAPE FROM ISIS exposed the brutal treatment of the estimated four million women living under the rule of the "Islamic State" and, for the first time on television, told the extraordinary story of an underground network trying to save those it can. It received numerous international awards and citations, including an International Emmy and BAFTA nomination for Best Current Affairs Documentary.
Among his other work, his first narrative short film OKSIJAN told the incredible true story of a 7-year-old Afghan boy’s fight to survive as he is smuggled to the UK in a refrigerated lorry and the air inside begins to run out. Edward’s filmmaking aspires to tell visceral, gripping stories about people who live in far flung corners of the world, to emphasise our common humanity to audiences back home. In so doing, he hopes his films can make a positive contribution to reducing the hatred in our tumultuous world. He has an eye for the unexpected: the intimacy found even in the bleakest places; the stories of hope amid horror. He creates films on a strong foundation of riveting narrative story-telling and striking, cinematic images.
Cast & Crew
Directed by: Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
Produced by: Waad al-Kateab
Cinematography: Waad al-Kateab
Editing: Chloe Lambourne, Simon McMahon
Original Score: Nainita Desai
Sound: Jez Spencer
Nominations and Awards
- EFA Documentary Selection 2019