An award-winning director of five films and producer of eight, Sama Waham is recognized world-wide as a fearless storyteller, unflinching in her exploration of the pain and promise of one's past.
Perhaps best-known for her 2015 film, Sing for Me, Prof. Waham is also an exceptional educator, teaching a wide array of filmmaking skills from lighting and cinematography to editing, scriptwriting, producing and directing. Her research is focused on the moving image’s expanding forms and formats within a rapidly changing screen culture.
Prof. Waham took the time to speak with us about her work on Sing for Me and other films, as well as upcoming projects, how to prep for a career in film, and why telling a good story is more important than snazzy special effects.
Your 40-minute film, Sing for Me, has won several awards over the past few years, most recently in the “Best Foreign Film” category at the LA Film Festival. Do you have thoughts about why this film resonates so profoundly with audiences and critics?
SW: Sing For Me is a poetic documentary film about displacement and connecting with roots. It is a multi-layered account that contemplates the notion of inherited nostalgia, fractured diasporic identity and shared family memory. The story meditates on Mandaeanism; a fading ancient religion that goes back to Babylonian history, but faces the danger of extinction today. All of these layers and stories are connected and guided by a personal journey that explores the meaning of ‘home’ and belonging. Many colleagues, friends and critics who have seen this film said that it provides a new cinematic perspective to the concepts discussed, and an uncommon way of interweaving and connecting them. I believe the fact that it was a personal story that dismantled and then reassembled the idea of belonging in a poetic treatment, that too, probably made it a relatable story and contributed to the film’s success, whether it is critics’ reviews, audience’s feedback or festivals and awards. I didn’t know what to expect when I started submitting it to festivals, but I’m grateful for all these positive reviews and input that made me perceive and see my own story from a new angle everyday.
Can you tell us about your current/future projects? Are they a departure from past projects, or do you see each of your projects as building on or in some way related to each other? What has you most excited at the moment?
SW: I am currently working on two new ideas and starting to develop two scripts, a narrative and a hybrid docu-drama. I think one of them is in a way a departure from my latest project, as it is related to the concept of migration and nostalgia. Whereas the other contemplates human relations and interactions through a certain perspective. Some filmmakers say that we spend our lives making the same film, and while that might be true somehow, I find that I am simply attracted to good stories that move or inspire me, ones that allow me to challenge traditional ways of seeing.
If a student is interested in pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking, what should they consider or do now (either in high school or at the university level) to prepare? In your opinion, which is more important: developing a strong technique or having a strong story to tell?
SW: I suggest they watch and study a lot of films, analyze their different storytelling styles and read as much as they can prior to making their first films. Both theory and technique behind film production are important, but I always prioritize a stronger story, as it is what guides production skills to where they surface and shine. Filmmakers often get away with minor production errors and technical glitches if they have a good story that conveys a powerful message. But there is only so much that a fancy camera, gear, visual and sound effects can do if you don’t have much to say. I have seen brilliant films that were shot on cell phones at Hot Docs and other major film festivals. Good stories are the reason we film, paint and compose after all.
What can students expect if they take one of your classes? Do you offer opportunities for students to assist you in your work? Have any students completed some especially noteworthy projects recently?
SW: I always aim at offering a good balance of screenings, discussions and production workshops in my classes, where students get to stretch their creative abilities, experiment outside their comfort zones and come up with their own filmmaking language and style. I try to encourage them to challenge clichés and pre-existing mainstream storytelling ‘templates’ in their work. I am very proud to share that many of them have been able to screen their films and projects in significant film festivals, receiving international awards and positive feedback.
Sing For Me was shot in Canada, the U.S. and Iraq. It premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival and has received seven awards to date, including "Best Long Documentary Film" at the 2016 Alexandria Film Festival in Egypt.
Resight is told through the eyes of visually-impaired artist Yvonne Felix. The film suggests revising the notion of disability and recognizing the art of chasing a "vision." It screened at 26 festivals, ultimately receiving 14 awards.
Ramp screened at Hot Docs 2013 and the 2014 Canadian Society of Cinematographers annual gala, where Sama was nominated for the Robert Brooks Award for Best Director of Photography and promoted to Associate Member at the CSC.