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UB filmmaker’s documentary takes top honors at film festival

Watch a trailer for UB faculty member Sama Waham’s new film “Sing for Me.”  

By BERT GAMBINI

Published October 27, 2016

“There is a human instinct to connect to your roots. I didn’t expect it, but felt a burning desire and need to tell this story.”
Sama Waham, visiting assistant professor
Department of Media Study

Sama Waham’s new film “Sing for Me” has received top honors in the Long Documentaries category at this year’s Alexandria International Film Festival.

Waham, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Media Study, won the Best Film Award at the prestigious festival that aims to extend film culture and strengthen relations among filmmakers from around the world.

“Sing for Me,” released in 2015, is a personal and poetic journey told through a virtual conversation between Waham and her late grandfather. Inspired by the unanticipated discovery of his voice on a forgotten audio cassette, the film traces long, rich lines back to a place and a culture previously invisible and unfelt to Waham, a detached history removed from herself.

Born in Baghdad, Waham’s family moved for political reasons shortly after her first birthday and eventually settled in Ontario, Canada.

“I always thought that I was emotionally distant from the whole concept of Iraqi-ism, but I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she says. “You inherit the notion of nostalgia.

“There is a human instinct to connect to your roots. I didn’t expect it, but felt a burning desire and need to tell this story.”

Like an adopted child searching for her birthparents, Waham began the process of connecting to cultural roots she did not know and had not previously considered. But the story she envisioned telling through first-person recollections changed suddenly when extremists invaded Mosul.

Sama Waham holds the Best Film Award for "Sing with Me."

“I’m a Canadian women visiting Iraq,” she says. “I would have been a target, according to many of my relatives, an outsider because of nationality, gender and my family’s religion.”

Waham’s family members are Mandaeans, the original followers of John the Baptist. Most of the world’s roughly 60,000 Mandaens lived in Iraq prior to the Iraq War of 2003. Because of immigration, diaspora and dispersion, about 1,500 Mandaeans remain in the country today, she says.

Unable to go to her homeland to create the project as she intended, Waham’s film changed direction. Rewriting the concept was initially frustrating until she found her grandfather’s tape in a box filled with photos and documents.

“I didn’t grow up in a religious home,” she says. “There was a need to understand, an emotional curiosity: Iraqi, Mandaean.  Who are these people?

“The concept evolved into a film about identity and a film about who I am.”

With its 1979 label, the tape held Waham’s grandfather’s thoughts from that year, recorded after the family left Iraq. At the end, he addresses her directly.

“Are you going to be a doctor or an architect?” he asked. “We have enough doctors. Why don’t you become an architect? Then build us a beautiful house so we can live in it together.”

In a way, Waham did as her grandfather asked. The house he mentioned is the film she made and the concept of home is the common thread embracing her film’s many layers. They even live together, through song.

At the tape’s end, her grandfather sings to her. Waham would later dub for the film her voice on top of his, a duet spanning two worlds and 36 years creating a collaboration in voice and song that took Waham where she otherwise could not go and to help paint an identity for herself she otherwise could never have realized.

Interviews with relatives provided additional depth, while the sense of distance came through a collaboration with an Iraqi cinematographer who was able to film in the relatively safe southern part of the country.

The tape moved for Waham like the Jordan River, taking her on a journey similar to the ancient Mandaeans, strict pacifists who followed the Jordan to avoid violence and ultimately meet John the Baptist.

She says Mandaeans don’t allow conversion; to be a Mandaean is to be born of Mandaean parents. Waham says she finds their continued existence miraculous, just as she found the inherited nostalgia that complemented her sense of self.

“After making this film, as I listened to this duet [with her grandfather] I felt that I didn’t need to question the notion of identity,” she says. “We will always belong to a peripheral culture as immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants.

“It was a moment to belong.”