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For Sama's director speaks for 'voiceless Syrians' in embroidered Oscars dress

Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Khateab makes waves at the Hollywood awards in dress embroidered with Arabic poem
Syrian filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab attends the 92nd Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood (AFP)

Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab knew the Oscars were her latest chance to command an audience on a global scale. 

Rubbing shoulders with the world's biggest stars at the Hollywood pageant, the creator of Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama had one goal - to make sure that Syria was not forgotten.

The director, nominated for best documentary feature for her account of five years during Syria's uprising, stunned on the red carpet in a rose-tinted dress, embroidered with the words from an Arabic poem: “We dared to dream and we will not regret dignity” - the central message of the film, which she co-created with Edward Watts.

Like many before her, Kateab took advantage of the infamous “what are you wearing?” platform at the award show to raise awareness around the cause she championed, amidst the flashes of the cameras. 

As the Academy Awards are as much about the dresses the stars wear as they are about the films nominated, it was a move that commanded attention.

And together with another Oscar-nominated documentary on Syria - The Cave, by Syrian director Feras Fayyad, which tells the story of a female doctor in Ghouta who operates a makeshift hospital in a cave - the pair brought to the forefront the plight of the Syrian people during the nearly decade-long civil war.

Also wearing a dress with a message on the red carpet was actor Natalie Portman who, in protest against this year’s failure to nominate any women for the best director category, wore a black Dior cape with the names of all those overlooked women embroidered along the trim.

This year's best documentary award went to American Factory, which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama's production company and follows the story of a Chinese billionaire opening a factory in an abandoned General Motors plant and hiring 2,000 Americans.

International recognition

For Sama is a personal film, which Kateab dscribes as “a love letter from a young mother to her daughter”.

It documents Kateab's life over a span of five years, beginning with the uprising in 2011, to her falling in love, getting married, giving birth to her daughter Sama, and ending with her escaping the horrors of the besieged Aleppo.

Since creating the film, Kateab, who is from Aleppo, has made sure that she uses every inch of the spotlight to remind the world of the continued atrocities committed against civilians for the last 10 years of war in Syria. 

For Sama gained worldwide recognition after being nominated for both the BAFTAs and the Oscars, with many celebrities encouraging their followers on social media to watch the film and help raise awareness of the heartbreaking situation in Syria.

The film went on to become BAFTA’s most-nominated feature documentary, and on 2 February, won a BAFTA for the documentary category.

In her winning speech, Kateab dedicated the award to the people of Syria, the “great heroes” such as doctors and nurses who had remained behind, and those in the besieged city of Idlib, which is currently witnessing an onslaught of attacks as pro-Assad forces attempt to gain control of the last rebel-held province.

In an interview after the BAFTA win, Kateab explained how she was reluctant to make the film, fearing the audiences would view it as all about her instead of all Syrians.

“People outside need someone to connect with and go through that experience… it’s not about me, it’s about Aleppo and everything we went through,” she said.   

In the build-up to the BAFTAs, Kateab and other activists held protests outside the United Nations headquarters in New York, accompanied by vans plastered with the message: “Stop Bombing Hospitals.”

Already a winner

Even though her film did not win Best Documentary at the Oscars, for many online, Kateab is already a winner simply by giving Syrians a chance to tell their stories, particularly at a time when the sheer length of the war has seen the outside world lose interest.

When asked on the red carpet what her message to US President Donald Trump would be, Kateab replied: 

“They really need to take responsibility about what’s happening…

“If Russia wasn’t backing the Syrian regime, we never would have been standing here... we would speak about an amazing revolution with a very successful end.”