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'For Sama’ documentary, co-produced by WGBH’s ‘Frontline,’ earns Oscar nomination

Waad al-Kateab, in "For Sama," courtesy of "Frontline."
Waad al-Kateab, in "For Sama," courtesy of "Frontline."

Amid the outcry that women were shut out of the best director Oscar nominations, one female director whose film earned a nod has a Boston connection.

“For Sama,” a much-hailed festival circuit film by Waad Al-Kateab, was nominated Monday for an Academy Award for best documentary feature.

Produced by PBS’s documentary series “Frontline,” out of WGBH in Boston, the film is “basically a love letter” from Al-Kateab to her little daughter Sama, said Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of “Frontline.”

Al-Kateab is a self-taught filmmaker from Syria who filmed her life for five years living in a hospital during the Aleppo uprising with her husband, a doctor. Viewers watch the couple meet, fall in love, get married, and have a baby girl, Sama.

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Filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab accepts the Courage Under Fire Award for "For Sama" onstage during the 2019 IDA Documentary Awards at Paramount Pictures on Dec. 7, 2019 in Los Angeles.
Filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab accepts the Courage Under Fire Award for "For Sama" onstage during the 2019 IDA Documentary Awards at Paramount Pictures on Dec. 7, 2019 in Los Angeles.Tommaso Boddi/Getty

“It’s a very unusual film to come out of a conflict zone," said Aronson-Rath, of Lexington. " " 'Frontline’ has done 17 films on Syria — it’s one of my biggest passions — and this is the film that was able to break through the most.”

Directed by Al-Kateab and London-based Edward Watts, the documentary offers a rare first-person account of the Syrian conflict.

“For Sama” aired on PBS in November, following a summer theatrical release that saw it showered with praise. It won best feature at the International Documentary Association Awards; the Prix L’Œil d’Or for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival; the Grand Jury Award for best documentary at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, among others.

The international team watched the Academy Award nominations live, and were “screaming on both sides of the Atlantic” with the announcement, said Aronson-Rath.

Al-Kateab tweeted her thrilled reaction and thanks on Twitter Monday: “The second when the great news came: For Sama made it to #Oscar2020."

“Frontline” shares the honor with partners at UK’s Channel 4 and Channel 4 News, ITN, and PBS Distribution. UK’s Channel 4 was “involved since the very beginning,” said Aronson-Rath.

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“It was an incredible story,” she added. “Just the idea that a mother could tell her story from a conflict zone and be a filmmaker, as well. What’s so different about this film is that she truly humanized the experience. Usually a woman in a conflict zone is portrayed as a victim, or a character in a film. In this case, she was telling her own story, in a way that we really hadn’t seen before.”

The Oscars ceremony airs Feb. 9 on ABC. “For Sama” is now available for streaming on pbs.org and on the PBS app.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.