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Monday, May 27, 2024

Sam Kadi: A film-maker’s journey from Aleppo to Los Angeles

Sam Kadi at the 2020 Annual Directors Guild of America Awards Event in Los Angeles; Photo credit: Sam Kadi

Born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, Sam Kadi acquired a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Aleppo and worked as a playwright, stage actor, and director before immigrating to the U.S. about 22 years ago. Kadi, who currently lives in California, originally settled in Michigan and worked as an engineer but continued to pursue his interest in acting by performing in some community theater productions. On the advice of a friend who was impressed by his talent, Kadi enrolled in the Motion Picture Institute, Michigan’s premier hands-on career school for independent film-makers. 

Kadi made his debut as a writer, director, and producer with The Citizen, an independent film that integrated many true stories about the difficulties, as well as the triumphs, of being an Arab-American in post 9/11 America. Filmed at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Michigan, the Detroit Masonic Temple, and New York City, The Citizen premiered at the Boston Film Festival in September 2012 where it won the Best Ensemble Cast & Mass Impact Award. The film was shown at eight more international film festivals, winning two more awards.

By this time the revolution in Syria was in full bloom and Kadi turned his attention to the tragic events unfolding in his homeland.

In 2016, Kadi’s feature-length documentary film, Little Gandhi, which focuses on the life and death of the young Syrian peace activist, Ghiyath Matar, was chosen out of 77 entries from 31 different countries to win the Ahmed Khedr Award for Excellence in Arab Filmmaking at the Independent European Film Festival in Paris. But in what Kadi considers to be his most important achievement so far, Little Gandhi was Syria’s first-ever official selection for the Oscar foreign-language film category for the 90th Academy Awards in 2018. The film was also screened in Washington, D.C., at the Rayburn House Office Building of the U.S. Congress.

About how the Syrian revolution affected him personally, Kadi tells SYRIAWISE that the “Syrian revolution made me change my priorities in life, see the world through a different lens, appreciate the things that I used to take for granted and made me closer to home just by being involved in what’s going on over there even though I’ve been outside Syria for a while.”

Kadi adds that just knowing that we had so many good people over there that were going through a lot of difficulties triggered these feelings that I needed to do something. “These are my people; this is my job,” Kadi affirms.

Kadi believes he is blessed to be a storyteller and a film-maker, a stage that is so unique and empowering as he could not just ignore what’s going on there.

“Unfortunately, we are still witnessing the atrocities and now with what’s happening in Ukraine it’s like Syria all over again.”

Sam Kadi

“I kept hearing these voices that I felt needed to be unmuted. In my Ted Talk presentation, I spoke briefly about the difference between voice and noise. To me that is a really important issue because it needs people who can turn the noise into an important voice. It needs people who champion these voices, people who have platforms that can speak on behalf of these people and deliver their voices,” Kadi goes on to say. “Unfortunately, we are still witnessing the atrocities and now with what’s happening in Ukraine it’s like Syria all over again.”

“I think, overall, it made me more human,” Kadi sums up the influence of the Syrian Revolution on him.

Kadi, unlike lots of people in the film industry who are emotionally distant from their audience, is down-to-earth and approachable and this helped him in pursuing his passion for filmmaking.

“It honestly doesn’t make any sense to me if you are not approachable and if you’re not near to the people, then why do I do what I do? I tell people’s stories, I want to talk with people, I want to connect with people. I feel their pain, I hear their stories and I get inspired by them. They are my audience, these are my people and honestly I became a filmmaker because of people. I want to hear their stories and give them a voice. Honestly, I feel that I am not doing anything special. I am who I am and this is how it’s supposed to be,” Kadi tells SYRIAWISE.

About the significance of coming to the U.S. after growing up in Syria, Kadi says: “Definitely it was a transformational move for sure, and it’s a huge transition for somebody like myself on many levels. You leave behind a set of memories, and great moments with family and close friends, to come and seek your dream and to come here and actually have better opportunities and a higher ceiling. I always demanded a higher ceiling and I felt in Syria it was pretty low. Because of that, it was not available for me to go and study film in Syria, it was not even an option. In the U.S. I found a lot of positivity even though I had left my track record behind in Syria and had to start from scratch all over again. I’m  always grateful for the US.”

Sam Kadi

His first feature film, The Citizen, is “a love letter to the U.S. and my journey here with its ups and downs,” Kadi says, adding that he always says that “America is far from being perfect, but it’s still the best place in the world.”

When asked how he had channelled his creativity during the height of the pandemic, Kadi says he felt he was being prepared for lockdown since 2015 since so much of the making of Little Gandhi had already been done over Skype a few years before. Because it was impossible for him and his film crew to enter the neighborhoods in Syria that are included in the film, everything had to be coordinated remotely from a hotel room in Istanbul so by the time the pandemic lockdowns occurred, he already had experience in making a film under pandemic conditions. 

Kadi’s latest project, Lamya’s Poem, is his first animated feature film and was already in progress when the pandemic hit. “We found ourselves with only one option which was to mobilize more animators to work from their homes,” he said. “We were back to the same story with the only difference being that instead of Skype, we were using Zoom.”

It took them two years to complete Lamya’s Poem. Kadi and his team were finally able to meet in person for the first time during the film’s world premiere at the 2021 Annecy Film Festival in France last summer.  

Ruthanne Sikora
Ruthanne Sikora
Ruthanne Sikora is a full-time caregiver for her differently-abled daughter Lauren, human rights activist, Global Studies student, part-time writer and English editor.


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