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Acclaimed documentary ‘For Sama’ finds love amid loss of Syrian war
Judy Woodruff: Today, in the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. condemned Russia and the Syrian government for an ongoing onslaught in Idlib province, the last holdout of Syrians opposed to the regime, where Russia, Syrian, and allied forces have driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The offensive comes as two films about the Syrian war are nominated for best documentary in Sunday's Academy Awards.
One of them is "For Sama."
And we should warn viewers now there graphic images that are difficult to watch.
As part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas, Nick Schifrin reports that "For Sama" is about the depth of the war's destruction and the triumph of love.
Nick Schifrin: The darkest days of the Syrian war spared no one, not the children who lost their lives as they played, not the boys who lost a brother, and not the camerawoman behind the lens documenting horror and confronting her own mortality.
Waad Al-Kateab: I filmed just because I know that I will be next killed or dead or injured, and I want to do my responsibility for these people.
Nick Schifrin: Waad al-Kateab was the camerawoman, Dr. Hamza al-Kateab the doctor who became her husband.
Waad Al-Kateab: My first baby, Sama. Her name is meaning the sky. Sky, we love. Sky, we want, without air forces, without bombing.
Nick Schifrin: And Sama, their daughter, for whom the film was made.
In this war zone, they create a family. But dad is one of the last remaining doctors in Aleppo, and this new life is surrounded by death.
Surrounded by scenes of the unimaginable. Waad films as a mother realizes her son is dead, and carries his body through the street.
Hamza Al-Kateab: For everyone who was living in a war zone, you always had the scenario, like, what I will do if my child was killed?
What would I do if my wife was killed? What she will do if I was killed? In my head, it's always like -- I lived this scenario that Sama is killed, Waad is killed so many times.
Nick Schifrin: It didn't start out so fatalistically. Waad filmed the hope of the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011.
Man (through translator): We're overthrowing President Bashar, even if only on the walls.
Nick Schifrin: The pride these Syrians felt in taking on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the innocence of a doctor who became an anti-regime activist, and the camerawoman who helped him.
Waad Al-Kateab: That two years of the peaceful demonstration, it give us, like, a lot of hope. It wasn't just, like, to change our life, but also something, like, you want to change the whole world.
Nick Schifrin: And then Waad gets pregnant. She says Sama represented hope even before she was born.
Waad Al-Kateab: So many times, when I was getting out to film some people or some stories outside when the destruction happened or any shelling happened, and I can feel Sama, you know, like, that feeling of the life that I have inside my body, which, like, stood against every feeling, every bad feeling we have seen around.
Nick Schifrin: But the Russian air force and Syrian bombardment on Aleppo were relentless.
Their hospital is purposely bombed, killing 53 of their co-workers and friends. Waad says, at one point, in Aleppo, there was no time to grieve.
And surrounded by war, the children are not all right. Waad films as children play in a bombed-out bus.
Waad Al-Kateab: When I asked her about the bus she was painting, like, what happened to this bus?
(through translator): Do you know what hit this bus?
Child (through translator): A cluster bomb.
Waad Al-Kateab: She said cluster bomb. And she's 4 years old. And it was cluster bomb.
So, just, like, so complicated how they understand what's happening, how they adapt to that situation.
Woman: "For Sama."
Nick Schifrin: They want the film to become a wakeup call.
Last weekend, they won best documentary at Britain's equivalent of the Oscars.
Waad Al-Kateab: Thank you so much.
Hamza Al-Kateab: We're living for the day that accountability will happen. Like, we're fighting for this to happen. We keep shedding the light about what's going on.
Like, the film itself is like a document that shows all the war crimes that was committed. And, like, Waad also has more footage, and all the citizen journalists that filmed all the war crimes that were committed in Aleppo and all over Syria in the past, like, eight, nine years.
Nick Schifrin: Today, the darkest days of this war continue in Idlib, where the Syrians and Russians are trying to capture the last rebel stronghold.
Waad Al-Kateab: There is now over than -- 3.5 million civilians who are living inside Idlib, and the regime is still, like, shelling and bombing them with the help of Russia.
Nick Schifrin: Edward Watts is "For Sama"'s co-director.
Edward Watts: We're trying to say to people, in all these places we're going, in the sort of glitzy parties and award ceremonies, what you see in the film is still happening today and, in some ways, worse than ever.
Nick Schifrin: When they were still inside Syria, they didn't know whether they would survive.
Woman (through translator): The regime forces are only one street away.
Nick Schifrin: Waad filmed as the regime got to within one block of the hospital, and Hamza considered the unimaginable.
Waad Al-Kateab: They killed daughters in front of their moms. They killed, like, fathers in front of their wives.
And they were just, like, trying to rape people, torture them in very bad ways. When Hamza told me like, let's just leave Sama in one room and close the door, because they don't want them to know that she is our daughter.
Nick Schifrin: In a war defined by loss, what kept them alive was love. Waad filmed this scene right before Hamza proposed.
Waad Al-Kateab: We don't know when any one of us could be killed.
So, why -- what are we waiting for? Let's just, like, do that and share that love and share that responsibility with each other, and go through this journey to the end.
I love him. And he's, like, just a great, not just a doctor, but he's, for me, like my hero.
Hamza Al-Kateab: Glad to hear that.
Nick Schifrin: They are still in love today, as they were on their wedding day.
Waad Al-Kateab: In my wedding, when we were, like, dancing we didn't care about what's happening, like, around.
Yes, we heard like kind of sound of the shelling, but the music that we were doing, it was, like, much, much louder.
Nick Schifrin: And that's their final message: Even when things look impossibly bleak, and a woman arrives dead nine months pregnant, and a baby seems lost...
Nick Schifrin: ... love and hope can overcome despair.
Waad Al-Kateab: I have seen that amazing feeling when, like, this baby is born. This is more stronger than all the shelling, all the bombing, all the crimes that the regime was doing.
Woman (through translator): It's a miracle.
Nick Schifrin: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
Judy Woodruff: What a powerful story.
"For Sama" was broadcast on PBS' "Frontline" and is streaming for free on PBS.org/Frontline and the PBS video app.