Two documentaries offering a female perspective on the death and destruction in the war-torn Syrian cities of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta received Oscar nominations for Best Documentary. Waad al-Kateab's film "For Sama" and Feras Fayyad's film "The Cave" document civilians' struggle for survival in devastated cities where doctors in makeshift hospitals tend to throngs of injured and dying.
Amidst airstrikes, barrel bombs and chemical attacks, citizen journalist-turned-filmmaker al-Kateab chronicles her daily life in besieged Aleppo since the beginning of the rebellion against the Assad regime in 2012.
"When I filmed everything you've seen in the film, I had no idea that I would do a film. So, I was just documenting all these moments because I was sure that I would be killed and I wanted this story not to be dead," al-Kateab told VOA.
"For Sama" is a visual diary dedicated to her daughter, Sama, born in the middle of destruction.
Over five years in Aleppo, al-Kateab filmed thousands of hours of footage, recording her personal life as a young student, as a young bride living with her husband, Hamza, a doctor in Aleppo, and then as a mother.
While thousands of people who were looking for a better life abandoned the city, al-Kateab and her husband chose to stay, with Hamza working at a makeshift hospital where he was one of the few doctors left tending to injured civilians, mostly women and children.
While airstrikes were hitting the hospital, al-Kateab kept filming the incoming casualties, holding the camera with one hand and her baby with the other. "I can't really separate myself between Waad the mother and Waad the journalist. Everything I was trying to do was mixed between these two, and you can see that in the film," she said.
Filming everything around her served as a coping mechanism for al-Kateab. When she would feel hopeless as a mother, unable to give her daughter a better life, she would keep filming. And when she could no longer bear to film the horrors she witnessed, she would find solace in her baby daughter. She also drew hope that her footage would humanize the refugees on the world stage by showing how dangerous life is in Syria.
"Behind every one of us, there is a story, there is a lot of memories, there is childhood and a lot of complicated decisions until they (we) reach this point. When people see the film, they can experience the same situation I went through," al-Kateab said.
After five years in Aleppo, ak-Kateab fled to London with her family in 2017. There, she collaborated with award-winning filmmaker and producer Edward Watts to make "For Sama."
"It was incredibly challenging, trying to make this film," Watts told VOA. "There were so many different stories. It was the story of Aleppo. The story of the hospital and their friends. It was the story of the whole conflict. And there was so much incredible footage. Trying to scope that, distill that down, while retaining its essence, retaining its spirit and doing justice to these guys' lives was very hard."
"The Cave" by Syrian filmmaker Fayyad is also an Oscar contender in the category of Best Documentary Feature. This is Fayyad's second Oscar-nominated documentary on war-torn Syria.
As in the film "For Sama," Fayyad's documentary chronicles Herculean efforts by a skeleton crew of doctors and nurses at an underground hospital called The Cave to save as many lives as possible from airstrikes by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its allies in Eastern Ghouta. "The Cave" also chronicles the destruction through the eyes of a woman, the hospital's head doctor, Dr. Amani Ballour, in a culture where, for women, wartime struggles are compounded by gender inequality.
"A woman would be attacked if she turned to be a manager, and this is what happened with Dr. Amani. She managed to be a manager. She was the first manager in the history of Syria to lead a hospital," Fayyad told VOA.
Fayyad also said that the film documents airstrikes by Russian warplanes and chemical attacks by the Assad regime on civilians, many of them children.
He said both the Syrian government and its Russian allies have tried to discredit his film.
"They called me a propaganda maker and the film a propaganda film," Fayyad told VOA.
Theodore Strzhizhovskiy, head of press, information and public relations of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, told VOA: "As for 'The Cave,' we do not closely follow Mr. Fayyad's creative endeavors."
Fayyad, a Syrian exile living in Denmark, has been denied a visa to enter the United States to attend the Oscars.
Members of the International Documentary Association wrote a letter to the U.S. State Department, requesting that Fayyad be given a visa to enter the U.S. and represent his film at the Oscars.
When asked by VOA about the filmmaker's case, the State Department responded in a statement: "The Department of State recognizes the important contributions international filmmakers and documentarians make to the culture of the United States. We strive to facilitate the legitimate travel of artists to the United States, regardless of nationality."