“Everything we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice’. We are all captives of ‘men’s’ notions and ‘men’s’ sense of war. ‘Men’s’ words. Women are silent.” So writes the Nobel prize- winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich in the introduction to her celebrated book The Unwomanly Face of War

Originally released in censored form in the Soviet Union in 1985, but first translated into English in a full, unexpurgated version only two years ago, it stitches together Alexievich’s interviews with hundreds of Russian women involved in World War Two, from snipers to nurses, pilots to laundresses. And whether its subjects are offering up observations profound or particular, it is consistently, brilliantly, harrowingly illuminating. “How could I give birth in the midst of death?” explains one woman, of her decision to have a makeshift abortion. “For me, the most terrible thing in war was – wearing men’s underpants,” recalls another.

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Three decades on, and female perspectives on war are still proving revelatory. One of this year’s most universally acclaimed films, feature documentary For Sama, is the work of Waad Al-Kateab: a young Syrian woman who lived in Aleppo as it became a chief battleground in the Syrian civil war, with the forces of President Assad, backed by its ally, Russia, bombing the rebel-held city into submission. 

Spanning five years, from the first stirrings of anti-government dissent in Aleppo to the point at which she and many other citizens finally fled the city for good after the regime recaptured it, her raw, diary-esque footage allows viewers to experience the conflict through her eyes – as a nascent journalist, the wife of a doctor running a volunteer hospital and the mother of a young daughter. 

All the people around me, all the time they were saying to me: why are you filming? Waad Al-Kateab

By means of a voiceover, Al-Kateab frames the film as an address to that child, Sama, who was born in 2015 and is an innocent counterpoint to the mayhem – right from the agonising opening sequence where we see her cherubic face in close up, just as an air strike begins. There follows an evacuation to the basement of the hospital, during which Al-Kateab hands Sama over to someone else to take downstairs. 

When a bomb hits right up close, on camera, Al-Kateab rushes to join them. There are some panicked, disorientating moments as she scours the blacked-out rooms for her daughter, as medics are doing their best to keep attending to patients. Eventually we see Sama, in her pink jacket, placidly feeding before throwing her milk bottle at the camera – her playful petulance putting in relief, with terrible irony, the adult aggression that has ruined the world into which she has been born.

It’s perhaps not surprising that, given the extreme situation in which she found herself, Waad never really saw herself as a “filmmaker”, as she tells BBC Culture. Filmmaking was certainly not a vocation, but something she did out of a sense of urgent necessity. Some of For Sama’s camerawork, notably the drone shots of Aleppo that punctuate the action, is remarkable for someone wholly self-taught. 

Memorialising the truth

She began making videos on her phone in 2011 and 2012, when she was part of the protests against Assad at Aleppo university, during which students were reportedly arrested and beaten by government forces; with the regime trying to deny anything was happening via official news channels, she says, her recording was a way of bearing witness to the truth.

From there, she began to film her and her peers’ day-to-day lives, including her burgeoning relationship with newly-qualified doctor and fellow activist Hamza, though others, including Hamza, couldn’t understand why.

“All the people around me, all the time they were saying to me: ‘why are you filming?’… like they would be going to play football and I’d want to go with them ... and they’d say ‘why are you filming this shit?’... they knew journalists were doing something important, but [what I was doing], for them, it didn’t make sense.” 

The fact I knew I’d be killed – that was in my mind all the time – Waad Al-Kateab 

The turning point came in 2013, when her friend Gaith and Gaith’s brother Mahmoud were killed in an air strike, she says. “After this, [my friends would] never tell me to stop… [instead] they would see something and they were like ‘Waad, come film’, sometimes [even] when I was asleep or it was the middle of the night – and even when it was something that didn’t seem very important in their mind like a pet shop or a flower seller.”

What Gaith’s death brought home to everyone was the true value of Al-Kateab’s footage – as a memorial for lives that could end at any point. And in enshrining their existence in film for posterity, she wanted to paint as complete and rounded a picture as possible. “The fact I knew I’d be killed, that’s so important and was in my mind all the time,” Waad says. “And so I needed [people] outside Aleppo to know exactly how our life was inside. For someone to take this footage so he can understand exactly why we did this and how we lived in that situation and how difficult – and how nice – it was sometimes.”

Gradually, Al-Kateab began to collaborate with the media outside Syria; her videos appeared on the Orient TV and Al Arabiya networks before, in 2015, she began working  with Channel 4 News. When she escaped Syria at the end of 2016, with various hard drives of footage in tow underneath her coat, she then discussed with Channel 4 the potential for something more substantial, and was paired up by them with the British documentary maker Edward Watts, to sift through what turned out to be over 500 hours of material she had managed to smuggle out.

Watts, known for films such as 2015’s Emmy-winning Escape from Isis, describes what she showed him as simply “gobsmacking. I’d always wanted to make a film about Syria… and one of the first things I felt was ‘my God, this is the film I dreamt was out there that existed’.” As someone familiar with war-zones, he was struck, especially, by the emotional nuance that Al-Kateab had captured. “In those kind of environments, you see the best of people, as well as the worst. You see humour: people are always cracking jokes. And people actually show each other greater love and kindness and compassion than they would do in ‘normal’ [circumstances]. And that was what really hit me in her footage – here is this incredible baby, and this amazing love story, and the lighter side of human experience, which exists in conflict but we so rarely see.”

 The extraordinary circumstances often belie their very relatable emotions

The film’s real power, indeed, is in its valorisation of the apparently incidental moments of war-torn existence. Centred around the hospital, it balances stomach-droppingly horrendous footage of death and suffering with that of Al-Kateab and Hamza’s marriage, Sama’s birth, and then, subsequently, muddling through life, along with their friends Salam and Afra. The portrait of the latter two is particularly joyous, from Salam gifting a persimmon fruit to a delighted Afra, or Afra joking about her daughter urinating on her out of fear during an air strike (“what a poetic morning”).

Their extraordinary circumstances often belie their very relatable emotions: when, over a scene of Al-Kateab and Hamza cuddling, her voiceover to Sama points out that this is the first time her and Sama’s father have seen each other properly for four days, her having been filming, him having been in the emergency room, it’s a measure of the high-stakes situation the couple are in – but, from another angle, reflects the frazzled routines of young working parents everywhere. Throughout, its slice-of-life observation proves the classic adage that the more specific art is, the more universal it becomes.

A female gaze?

But to what extent should For Sama’s take on war be understood specifically through the prism of gender? When thinking about the very notion of male or female perspectives on any subject, there is always the danger of essentialism and stereotyping. To think of great fictional war films directed by women, for example, Claire Denis’ 1999 classic Beau Travail, set among the ranks of the French Foreign Legion, has been seen by some as casting a sensual female gaze upon a military masculine sphere – though Denis herself has denied this reading. “The gaze is a decision. It’s not a gender. It’s a little disgusting to accept the female gaze,” she said in one interview. And then what of Kathryn Bigelow, whose tough, tense Iraq war study The Hurt Locker was classified by some critics as an example of a woman making a straightforward ‘man’s film’ – an explanation that was then cynically used to explain her success as the first female director to win an Oscar?

But while discussion of female and male points-of-view is necessarily crude and reductive, it is not invalid. In The Unwomanly Face of War, Alexievich is not shy of stating how she believes women fundamentally experience, and understand, war differently.

There are obvious ways in which her interviewees have had these differences forced upon them: despite the fact that almost one million women fought in the Red Army, the soldiers among them recount how they were patronised by their male comrades – and then shamed into covering up their involvement in ‘unwomanly’ business when they returned home. “There was no one that I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion,” recalls one. “Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you? We were silent as fish.”

War fascinates men as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests, whereas women are caught up with feelings – Svetlana Alexievich

But Alexievich also makes interesting observations about the manner in which her female subjects process war, even when their experiences are notionally similar to men – what they choose to focus on, or not. “Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests, whereas women are caught up with feelings,” she writes and, to use her own distinction, it is apparent that her guiding mission is to provide a singularly ‘unmanly’ account of conflict – one that is interested in the micro rather than the macro view of events, and eschews any grand, overarching historical narrative in favour of intimate, un-footnoted individual testimonies, apparently strung together in a random order. 

“Small details are what is most important for me: the warmth and vividness of life” she also declares at one point, and, as with For Sama, those are what sear themselves in the memory – whether that’s one woman describing how she inexplicably tied a bouquet of violets to her bayonet, or another remembering hearing the wheat rustling amid the rat-a-tat-tat of German submachine guns.

When it comes to For Sama, do Al-Kateab and Watts respectively see it as a specifically female vision of war? “Waad and I have talked about this a lot. She’s always the one that goes ‘it's a human perspective,’” says Watts. “But I do think there is a point, which is, and I know this having been in conflict zones myself... the majority of men are often drawn towards the frontline and the fight and the explosion side of things. And I think what was so special about what Waad achieved was just the filming of the weevils in the rice or [Salam giving Afrab] a piece of fruit – and appreciating that was as much a part of the war, and the life [there], as the war itself.”

For Al-Kateab, meanwhile, the fact that it is so deeply personal means it is self-evidently a gendered view of what was going on. “I feel that it is my perspective as Waad, and I’m a female so of course it is [female],” as she puts it – which automatically marked what she was doing out because, she says, “I knew that most of the war reports like news or documentaries, or whatever, even if [they were] from a female perspective, [they were] all limited by male power or rules.”

Universal truths

Not that, as a woman with a camera, she didn’t have to contend with patriarchal assumptions while filming. Repeatedly, she says, she experienced condescension – on the one hand, people would laugh at her for wanting to film on the frontline and on the other, when she decided to concentrate on filming at the hospital, short-sighted male journalists would say she “was wasting her time… [she’s just doing this] because she’s female, and she can’t be out.”

But, most uniquely, For Sama offers a mother’s perspective on war – a new mother, caught between standing up for her city, and country, and keeping safe the person most precious to her. At one point, we see her and Hamza making the agonising decision to return to an under-siege Aleppo with Sama after briefly getting out to visit Hamza’s parents in Turkey; “In our hearts we felt we had to go back and bring you with us. We didn't know why. The truth is I can’t believe we did even now” her voiceover reflects. At another especially dark moment, she confesses to Sama, gut-wrenchingly “I wish I’d never given birth to you”.

 My experience of making films is they know what they want to be, but you as filmmakers are trying to hear that – Edward Watts

Twice, at the hospital, we see mothers cradling dead children in their arms, the horror of which is countered elsewhere by the miracle of the chalk-white body of a seemingly-stillborn baby being resuscitated to life. These scenes resonate, as much as anything, as manifestations of Al-Kateab’s most primal anxieties. She recalls how someone who saw the film asked her “‘why are there so many children in the city? We’ve never seen that in other reports’… I said, ‘I don’t know, I see them around me. When I saw a child, without any plan, I [just followed them] that way – or if I saw a mother, I [followed] her that way.’”

However an interesting point to note about For Sama’s extraordinarily intimate vision – which perhaps muddies any assumption that it is also, by extension, a ‘feminine’ one – is that, when it came to selecting and editing the footage, Al-Kateab initially wanted to make a much less personal film. “I just felt there were so many things to speak about more important than my personal life,” she explains. “I didn’t want people who lived this story to say 'this is just Waad’s story, this is not our story.’”

Watts, with the benefit of distance, however, could see that Al-Kateab’s individual story was the most emotionally resonant way to represent the collective experience of Aleppo’s citizens to outsiders. “As we went through the process, I think more and more [Waad] came to understand this line which I learned from one of my old bosses that ‘it’s through the smallest window that you have the biggest view’… the best thing that happened in the whole journey actually was when she took the final film to her friends in Turkey, and showed it to them. And at the end, they said, ‘you know, this is your story, the story of you and Hamza and Sama, but it's all of our stories. The emotional essence of it is exactly what we all have been through.’”

As for the framing device of the voiceover addressed to Sama? That was also Watts’ idea, on paper, though as he puts it, it was “basically both of us.” “This may sound a little kooky but my experience of making films is they know what they want to be, but you as filmmakers are trying to hear that… The whole quality of Waad’s filming and her story was infused with this sort of dialogue with Sama. It was almost unconscious... but so much of [her footage had this focus on] children and fighting for the future. It just felt like this is what the film’s all about. It was just a matter of discovering it.”

In the end, above and beyond gender, it’s what Watts’ calls the “yin yang” dynamic between Al-Kateab, as a female Syrian insider, and him, as a Western male outsider, that he thinks energised the edit. Certainly, what they have produced is a study of war with its own masterfully-judged balance: between light and shade, specificity and universality, visceral feeling and sharp-eyed structure.

In the film, Al-Kateab, who is now based in London with Hamza, Sama and her youngest daughter Taima, and working in the Channel 4 newsroom, expresses her frustration that “millions of people watch my reports but no one does anything to stop the regime.” The hope of both directors is that, at a time when the civil war continues to rage in Idlib, the last remaining rebel-controlled city, For Sama’s uniquely immersive quality may drive Western politicians to take action against the Assad regime.

Since it first received a rapturous reception at the SXSW and Cannes Film Festivals earlier this year, it has secured US and UK theatrical releases, won numerous awards around the world, and has been screened at the UN, where it has also helped prompt an inquiry into the alleged systematic bombing of medical facilities by the Syrian regime and their Russian allies. The hope is that now it will be screened to the US congress and the UK’s Houses of Parliament. “We’ve tried our best to make these people think about this experience and go through one-and-a-half hours watching this in a way they can really understand,” says Al-Kateab. “And I still have hope that will really make a difference.”

For Sama is released in UK cinemas on 13 September and will be screened on Frontline (PBS) in the US and on Channel 4 in the UK later in the year.

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