For Sama is a thoroughly engrossing and heart-wrenching documentary made by the mother of a baby born in Aleppo, Syria during the rebel uprising and daily bombings. Sama’s mother Waad al-Kateab frames the film as a letter to her daughter about the time and place in which she was born. An avid citizen journalist, al-Kateab was already documenting her world in 2011 while she was a student at Aleppo University when protests began against the corrupt regime of Bashar al-Assad. Her camera caught the beginnings of the student led uprising and the early optimism. And then all hell broke loose and she was right there in the middle of it, with her camera and a conviction that what was happening needed to be shown to the world. And it is harrowing, unlike any war correspondent’s version of life during wartime. During the five years of filming, she lived through nearly daily bombings and massacres, as well as marriage and the birth of her first child. It’s her own personal story, but also the story of the destruction of Aleppo at the hands of the Syrian regime with the aid of the Russians and the determination of the inhabitants to keep going. It’s a must see film.
Early in the film al-Kateab meets her future husband Hamza, a young doctor who’s also heading to the protests. He treats the wounded during the government’s brutal crackdown, and by the end of the film he’s the head of the only hospital left in Aleppo. So much of the power of the documentary is in the everyday lives of the people. Al-Kateab and Hamza try to have a normal life together. They buy a house and plant a garden that they later have to abandon. They spend time with old friends and their children. And it’s the children that break your heart. One little boy makes cutouts of his friends who have either escaped or died and he feels utterly abandoned. War and bombings and death is all they know of the world. They play in the craters left by bombs and the carcasses of burned-out busses. And way too many children come into Hamza’s hospital, dead or dying. But al-Kateab’s camera doesn’t turn away. She needs to tell the world what is happening, to counter the propaganda about who the “rebels” are, stories of the mothers who can’t feed their children or the little boys who were too late to bring their littler brother inside when the bombing started, or the images of hospitals being blown apart.
Al-Kateab was fortunate to get her footage out of the country when she and her husband and baby Sama finally accepted exile rather than death. Along with her fellow director Edward Watts in England, she has made one of the most viscerally affective war films I’ve ever seen. At times it is hard to imagine having a baby in a situation like hers, and even harder to imagine wanting to stay in a place where the sound of bombs has become just a normal part of the background noise when you have the chance to leave. But it’s clear that both al-Kateab and Hamza had a calling that compelled them to stay until the bitter end. For Sama is not an easy film to watch and I cried several times while viewing it, but it is film that should be seen widely.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: Sadly, there’s no shortage in recent years of films documenting the daily suffering and heroics of civilians caught up in the Syrian war. I recently saw ‘The Cave’ (from Feras Fayyad, director of the Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary ‘Last Men in Aleppo’), which focused on a woman doctor who ran an underground hospital in a besieged town outside Damascus. Both ‘The Cave’ and ‘For Sama” are especially heartbreaking when the cameras are on the children – alive, and much too often, dead. ‘For Sama’ is the more immersive and visceral of the two with a narrative and characters that are easier to follow. As Arty Chick said, it’s a tough watch – but a worthwhile one. The world should be watching. -hb]