‘It could have been us’: filming the devastation after the Turkish-Syrian earthquakes

<span>Capturing devastation … Death Without Mercy.</span><span>Photograph: no credit</span>
Capturing devastation … Death Without Mercy.Photograph: no credit

Waad al-Kateab has always looked for hope, but when it came to making her latest documentary, Death Without Mercy, the moments were difficult to find. After the nightmarish earthquake shook Turkey and Syria in February 2023, she felt hopeless counting the passing seconds, hours and days from her home in east London as she waited for an emergency visa to visit her family in Gaziantep city, near the Syrian border she crossed years earlier fleeing the Assad regime. “It could have been us,” the film-maker, now a refugee in the UK, tells me with tears in her eyes.

At 32, al-Kateab has a talent for making the devastatingly personal universal. In her debut film, For Sama, she documented life under siege in Aleppo to much acclaim. But when it came to making her third documentary, which follows two Syrian families – her “dear friends” Fadi Al Halabi and Fuad Sayed Issa – over 10 days as they face the devastation wrought by the earthquakes that claimed more than 60,000 lives, the experience was not comparable.

The result is a film driven by responsibility more than hope. “I’ve learned through my experience, in so many things, that anything could happen, and I’m trying to get one step ahead, for this not to happen with other people,” says al-Kateab who suffers from nightmares and sought therapy as the film came together.

“I have to do it because I have responsibility.”

More than a year after the two earthquakes of 7.9 and 7.8 magnitude rippled across Turkey’s southernmost province and north-western Syria, displacing millions – many of whom were Syrian refugees already displaced by civil war – questions of responsibility have yet to be answered.

“No justice would bring back these people, but yet, it’s still very important for anyone who is responsible to take this responsibility, and to not let this happen in different areas, in different places,” says al-Kateab. “The United Nations is responsible, the Turkish government is responsible, the Syrian government is responsible.”

Avoidable deaths, overstretched rescue efforts and incomprehensible destruction. The notional abstraction of borders, insufficient humanitarian aid and political corruption – these are all at the heart of Death Without Mercy, which is as difficult to watch as the name suggests.

The film begins with shaky CCTV footage as buildings flatten within minutes in the pre-dawn hours of 6 February. We find people entombed by broken slabs, powdered with concrete dust as they record what may be their final words. Others scream for help, but none comes. “We heard them, they were shouting ‘Save us, rescue us!’” a tearful man tells a camera near the film’s beginning. “We can’t save them. How can we?”

The feelings of despair and helplessness thread through the film, pieced together with footage from film-makers, journalists, those trapped beneath the rubble and those on the ground. As al-Kateab draws attention to the catastrophe much of the world has already moved past, she brings sharp clarity to the tragic loss of life borne by accident of geography and political corruption.

“I’m still not really understanding how this happened, and what the cost of this [is], and how long the cost of this will be,” says al-Kateab. After 12 years of war in Syria, nothing could bring justice for what has happened, she says, similar to those victim to the earthquakes. How then can the pain be shaped into something meaningful for others?

While Fadi Al Halabi and Fuad Sayed Issa are at the heart of the film as they try to reach their relatives trapped beneath the rubble in Antakya, it is the border straddling Turkey and Syria that sets their stories apart.

On one side, we follow Fadi as he attempts to cross the border from the “prison” of north-west Syria. After he is repeatedly turned away, he reaches the city in Turkey’s southern Hatay province to learn 13 of his relatives have died. “Do you know what I’m thinking?” Fadi tells the camera. “I’m thinking that this is just a dream that someone will wake me up from. I swear I still can’t believe what happened. Nothing makes sense to me.”

On the other, we follow Fuad as he travels from Istanbul to reach his wife and two children. In the rubble he finds his eldest son Koutaiba’s toys and clothes before he finds his body, buried beneath the fallen roof that was once their home. “He was my best friend and son,” says Fuad. “I promised him that when he was older, I wouldn’t go anywhere without him.”

For al-Kateab, the interviews with her friends were the most difficult she expects to do in her life. “I know how hard it is for these amazing people who share this story, and they are going through this pain every single day,” she says. “I’m just scared about them, more and more emotionally, to always do the right thing for them.”

While her family was safe, others al-Kateab knew were identifiable from the footage she saw as the devastation unfolded. From London she helped circulate photographs of the injured or deceased to help with identification, and using information from those on the ground, was able to help to locate people beneath the rubble. It wasn’t until six months after the earthquakes that she was able to visit Turkey, after securing her visa.

“There’s also difficulties about being a refugee in the UK,” she explains. “In a normal life, I would have just gone directly, I would have been there.”

For her the film is a tool for change and understanding. It’s a way of knocking on people’s doors, of getting their attention. It’s also inextricably linked to the other facets of her identity as a mother of two, a Syrian refugee, a director and an activist.

Related: Uncertainty surrounds Turkish post-quake rebuild – despite bold promises

“No one can separate anything – not political from humanitarian from social, everything is embedded with each other and it is why the film is like this, because I am all of this together,” she says. “I think the artist’s responsibility is to put all of this together. If you manage to separate things from who you are and what you’re doing, what makes you think in such a certain way, I don’t think this is the honest and authentic experience.”

While she admits the disastrous world provides more opportunities for storytelling, as for the near future, she’ll be taking a much-needed break after the toll the past year has taken on her mental and physical health. “I didn’t have any kind of break since the revolution started in Syria in 2011,” she says.

“I know that whatever this film was, however this film will be, at the end of the day, people will stop and see and feel and go through this experience that changes people’s minds and hearts and perspective on so many things in life.”

As for hope, real hope, it is under the rubble, she says, with the many people whose whereabouts remain unknown to this date.

Death Without Mercy will have its world premiere at Sheffield DocFest on 15 June