‘For Sama’ Wins Best Feature at International Documentary Association Awards

For Sama SXSW Cannes Documentary
Courtesy of Abd Alkader Habak

Syrian Civil War diary “For Sama” has won the best feature award from the International Documentary Association for Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts.

The award was presented by Frances Fisher on Saturday night at the 35th Annual IDA Documentary Awards at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles.

The first-time award for Best Director went to Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert for Participant’s “American Factory,” which explores a Chinese company taking over a shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. The film was acquired by Netflix in association with Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions following its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

“Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé,” directed by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Ed Burke, won the Best Music Documentary. The film centers on Beyoncé’s performance at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Beyoncé also wrote and executive produced the film, which premiered on Netflix on April 17.

HBO’s “Leaving Neverland,” which focused on sexual abuse allegations against singer Michael Jackson, won the Best Multi-Part Documentary award for director-producer Dan Reed and executive producers Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller.

Carol Dysinger’s “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl)” received the award for Best Short. The Macedonian beekeeping documentary “Honeyland,” by directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, took the Best Cinematography and the IDA’s Pare Lorentz Award. Alisar Hasan and Feras Fayyad won the writing award for their work on “The Cave,” centered on an underground Syrian hospital.

“For Sama” takes place during five years of the Syrian civil war in Aleppo, starting with the escalation of the conflict in 2012, and following al-Kateab’s life as she falls in love with a medical student, is married, gives birth to her daughter Sama, and reluctantly flees Syria with her husband and infant daughter. “For Sama” had its world premiere in March at the SXSW Festival and won the documentary feature competition’s grand jury and audience awards.

Al-Kateab also received IDA’s Courage Under Fire Award on Saturday. “For Sama” topped nine other finalists — “Advocate,” “American Factory,” “Apollo 11,” “The Biggest Little Farm,” “The Edge of Democracy,” “Honeyland,” “Midnight Family,” “One Child Nation,” and “Sea of Shadows.”

Guy Lodge praised “For Sama” in his Variety review: “Simple in concept and shattering in execution, blending hard-headed reportage with unguarded personal testimony, it’s you-are-there cinema of the most literal order.”

Al-Kateab said in her acceptance speech, “Thank you so much to IDA and the ten films that are with us — our friends.”

She was unable to continue. Watts then said, “It is an amazing group of such mighty mighty filmmakers. I just met you for the first time this year and you’ve been so welcoming and supportive to us. Everyone is saying this is a dark time in the world but you look out at the filmmakers we’ve met and I think about documentary right now and I think about hope and I think things are going to get better thanks to a lot of people in this room.”

Simon Kilmurry, executive director of IDA, said the work of all the winners “boldly engages with and responds to the tumultuous times we live in, it is a call for justice, it enlightens and entertains us, it gives us hope, and it introduces us to people, places, and ideas that will stay with us forever.”

Kilmurry also announced a new initiative – the IDA Global Grant, underwritten by Netflix. In its first year the grant will provide a $25,000 cash award and ongoing support to an emerging filmmaker from one of four countries – Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and India.

Previously announced awards included Cinereach being presented with the Pioneer Award for its support of filmmakers and the Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award to Rachel Lears, whose film “Knock Down the House” won the Audience Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

The Career Achievement Award was presented to Academy Award-winning director Freida Lee Mock. Mock has been nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” in the documentary feature category.

In her speech, Mock touched on what seemed to be the theme of the evening. “What I find astonishing is for the first time in our country’s history watch dogs like the Washington Post instead of keeping count of the brilliant policies coming out of the White House are instead keeping count of the fabrications and misleading statements coming out of the mouth of the President,” she said. “Given this vacuum in moral leadership I think documentary storytellers and supporters need to seize the moment support each other and get our bold and boisterous documentaries out there now and quickly.”

Leah Remini received the inaugural Truth to Power Award for her work in exposing abuse within the Church of Scientology in her series “Leah Remini: Scientology and its Aftermath.” The Amicus Award went to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for their work in defending press freedoms for almost 50 years.

Waad al-Kateab spoke to Variety about documenting the conflict in the current media landscape. “The authorities are trying to dismiss us with propaganda,” she told Variety on the carpet. But the near ubiquity of smartphones has been a democratizing, countervailing force to propaganda, allowing civilians to expose lies by pulling out their personal recording devices. Al-Kateab said she filmed on her phone for the first year of creating her feature. “We are saving our history with a small budget and small equipment but we are not doing a small film. You can hear a true voice amidst all this propaganda,” she said.

When al-Kateeb took the stage to receive the “Courage Under Fire Award,” the audience responded with a show-stopping standing ovation. After the raucous applause died down she soberly began her speech: “Today there was another attack in Syria. Everyday we say the same words.“ She dedicated her award to the “millions of Syrians who are fighting everyday for freedom.”  She concluded, “I was brave one day. I’m not brave anymore. This is for them.”

Remini discussed how she thought the church stifled the truth. She told Variety, “Scientology is notorious for putting out fake news about themselves and have been since its inception.” She offered her theory on the outpouring of documentary content of late: “People have an appetite for the truth and they want to stop being bullsh—ted.”

Remini accepted the “Truth to Power Award” following an introduction from her friend and fellow actress Chelsea Handler. Handler injected some levity into her overture by recounting a time when Remini got “s—tfaced” on specially requested Fireball brand whiskey (which she described as a “green liquor”) to pre-game interviewing Handler at the Wiltern. Remini riffed along, correcting Handler: “[Fireball] is not green.” She then brought the tone back to serious, saying in her acceptance speech,”Scientology policy demands that for speaking out and speaking up you be publicly attacked. It is required that their family and friends shun them and that their lives be destroyed through Scientology’s ‘Fair Game’ directives. Speaking truth to power means exposing and challenging those in authority whether in government, business or religious institutions. That is rarely a course without danger.”

Willie Garson hosted the ceremonies.


Best Feature
For Sama (Syria, UK / PBS Distribution, Channel 4, FRONTLINE. Director/Producer: Waad
al-Kateab. Director: Edward Watts)

Best Director
Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (American Factory. USA / Netflix)

Best Short
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl) (Afghanistan, UK, USA / Lifetime
Films, A&E IndieFilms. Director: Carol Dysinger. Producer: Elena Andreicheva)

Best Curated Series
Dokumania (Denmark / Danish Broadcasting Corporation. Executive Producer: Anders Bruus)

Best Episodic Series
Abstract: The Art of Design (USA / Netflix. Executive Producers: Scott Dadich, Morgan
Neville, Dave O’Connor, Justin Wilkes and Jon Kamen)

Best Multi-Part Documentary

Leaving Neverland (USA / HBO. Director/Producer: Dan Reed. Executive Producers: Nancy
Abraham and Lisa Heller)

Best Short Form Series
A Moment in Mexico — The New York Times Op-Docs (Mexico, USA / The New York Times.
Executive Producer: Kathleen Lingo. Coordinating Producer: Lindsay Crouse)

Best Audio Documentary
A Sense of Quietness (UK / BBC Radio 4. Producer: Eleanor McDowall. Executive Producers:
Alan Hall and Rachel Hooper)

Best Music Documentary
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (USA / Netflix. Director/Producer: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
Director: Ed Burke. Producers: Steve Pamon and Erinn Williams)

David L. Wolper Student Documentary Award
Brewed in Palestine (USA, Israel, Palestine / UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Director/Producer: Emma Schwartz)

Best Cinematography
Honeyland (Macedonia / NEON. Cinematographers: Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma)

Best Editing
Midnight Family (Mexico, USA / 1091. Editor: Luke Lorentzen. Co-Editor: Paloma López

Best Music Score
The Raft (Denmark, Sweden, USA / Metrograph Pictures. Composer: Hans Appelqvist)

Best Writing
The Cave (Denmark, Syria, USA / National Geographic. Writers: Alisar Hasan and Feras

Pare Lorentz Award
Honeyland (Macedonia / NEON. Director: Tamara Kotevska. Director/ Producer: Ljubomir
Stefanov. Producer: Atanas Georgiev)
Honorable Mention: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada / Kino Lorber. Directors:
Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky. Producer: Nadia Tavazzani)

ABCNEWS VideoSource Award
Mike Wallace Is Here (USA / Magnolia Pictures. Director/Producer: Avi Belkin. Producers:
Rafael Marmor, John Battsek, Peggy Drexler and Christopher Leggett)

2019 IDA Documentary Awards Honorary Awards
Amicus Award: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Career Achievement Award: Freida Lee Mock
Courage Under Fire Award: Waad al-Kateab (For Sama)
Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: Rachel Lears (Knock Down The House, The
Hand That Feeds)
Pioneer Award: Cinereach
Truth to Power Award: Leah Remini

Dano Nissen contributed to this report.