“Oh yes Hakewati”, the director mused looking at the photo, I showed her.
I met For Sama’s director briefly some two years ago as a course director on a digital storytelling lab in London. My colleague had invited the makers of an extraordinary virtual visual project, Future Aleppo, to showcase its making.
It featured a young Syrian boy who had recreated Aleppo in Syria from cardboard. Videojournalist Waad al-Kateab shot the story film for Channel 4 News. At this talk, she was at the front of the stage with her family, inconspicuous, yet approachable as I introduced myself.
Her star status was already confirmed. A year earlier, she stood on stage to a rousing standing ovation as the British television industry, The RTS, honoured her for her outstanding work — the first woman to win the title of best camera person. She won several other awards.
Please do not take photos of her on stage, the ceremony’s host for that section Stuart Purvis urged the audience. She was due to go back to Syria and it would have compromised her safety. Somewhere on my phone I have the enduring audio of that occasions. Being a jury member for the RTS has its perks. That was one of them.
Fast forward. Waad is examining the people in the photo on my laptop. She recognises a few. Hakewati (5th right) is a character. I met him and several other young pros, near the border of Syria, some 4 hours drive from Aleppo.
Truth too, on my course is another amazing young Syrian, Nasma, who with her family fled the country. Nasma is seated at the back. I’d like the two to meet. Nasma will later put together her own unique insight into a world forgotten by politicians with this animated promo and serious game on a mobile.
Filming in tight spots: Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia
I was in Egypt on and off for five years working with young filmmakers, and then the the revolution kicked off. A human rights lawyer saw some of my work, found my contact and asked if I could come to Tunisia to teach a group of young filmmakers a journalistic art form I called “Cinema Journalism”.
It’s where a videojournalist, and that means using any assortment of cameras e.g. mobile is explicitly guided by a style of cinema (and there are many styles). I’d built a reputation as a cinema journalist over two decades, spreading its gospel. Before Tunisia, I was in Lebanon, and China and in the mid 1990s was filming on the streets of Paris and in South Africa. My now lawyer friend Marwen asked if I would be interested in sharing what I knew with young Syrians.
I jumped to it, not knowing where exactly I was going until five hours before my flight and President Obama and PM Cameron contemplating bombing Syrian forces for the use of chemical warfare.
Near the border for ten days, myself and executive team listened, interacted, pondered and absorbed what fifteen young filmmakers had to say, and what they wanted to achieve. Could we turn their thoughts into a film, several films. We presented at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. Some two years alter from our meeting, they made a film, which I’m tracking down.
Hakewati amongst the creative filmmakers in the room, was a theatre director turned activist. He’s behind one of the most memorable shots on the Internet purloined by many filmmakers, in which a bomb unexpected explodes as a young girl is singing. This, and much other footage is lifted from the group, Hakewati says. No one gets paid. He’s aggrieved. I’m aggrieved for him. Some years back when I used the clip, a production company said it owned the copyright. I gently told them of its roots.
One of our other subjects, (shown in the promo) about started to question what she was doing filming people being maimed at dying. She would pull her consent from making a film, because she feared for her family.
A story I can never get out of my mind concerns this camera. The mangled camera held the secret to the abduction of a videojournalist by Assad’s forces. The abductee’s family were employing whatever means they could to access the damaged camera, which would hold vital clues to the perpetuators of this crime. In discussions at the time, two brothers, who are part of the training programme are looking to send the camera to specialists in Germany of Amsterdam.
Many of the group, ex students have either been tortured or witnessed things you and I may never witness. And I speak as someone who shot films and produced radio and tv news reports in Apartheid South Africa in the early 1990s.
In 2011, after seeing what other extraordinary filmmakers were doing, I was in the midst of a PhD looking at the cognitive, neuroscience and philosophy of videojournalists turned cinema makers.
If the name Robert Drew rings a bell, then he was a pioneer, so much so he named the form Direct Cinema or Cinema Verite. At that time too, doubling as an artist in residence at the Southbank, I invited Danfung Dennis to meet me.
Danfung fresh from Afghanistan was about to blow big. His film, much like Waad’s was an homage to cinema, though different styles. Danfung’s was redolent of the Hollywood/ Steven Soderbergh model. Cinematic framing, no voice-over, steady cam continuity, a protagonist, and the brutality of war.
Waad’s is in the vein of the essay. Personalised, narratives that remind of neorealism, and its epic. Five years of filming condensed into a few hours belies a great film in the making. Personal private space is blurred. You’re with the director. The birth of her child is as much an allegory of hope and new beginnings, which the director captures in an earlier film for channel 4 filming a baby come to life on an operating theatre.
It’s uncompromising, tender, thoughtful and sickening. Its internal monologue redolent of Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), but such comparisons pull away from this film’s uniqueness.
What then could the Oscars bring? For one thing the opportunity for many more people e.g. Americans to see the film through the eyes of a mother, extraordinary filmmaker and a voice to provide weight to a president impervious to empathy and the people’s sufferings.
Waad’s achievement will also be a much needed boost to women filmmakers, let alone those from non western societies, where Western-mansplaining frequently determines the politics viewers should be engaging with.
For me too its a confirmation of an art form, given little credence in theory until its practitioners turn out these mind-blowing films.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a creative technologist, writer (top writer for @Medium), filmmaker and educator. He’s the first Brit to receive the Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism. He’s a former Channel 4 News Producer and currently leads Emerging Journalism at Cardiff University, looking at AI and other forms of technologies in storytelling. He’s a former Applied Chemist.