For Sama review: One of the most profoundly intimate depictions of the Syrian conflict

Director Waad al-Kateab captures her experiences in Aleppo with incredible bravery and determination 

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 25 September 2019 18:11
Comments
For Sama trailer

Dir: Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts. Featuring: Waad al-Kateab, Hamza al-Kateab, and Sama al-Kateab. 18 cert, 100 mins

Waad al-Kateab sings a lullaby to her infant daughter. This could be any old home movie, if it weren’t for the sudden interruption – a violent rumble. The shelling has started up again. We watch as the camera drifts nervously down the hallways of the hospital al-Kateab calls home. Her husband, Hamza, is one of the last remaining doctors in east Aleppo. A cloud of debris fills the air. Al-Kateab realises the building’s been hit and everyone files dutifully down into the basement. In a strained, broken voiceover she wonders what effects all this will have on Sama, her beloved daughter. “Will you ever forgive me?” she ponders. It’s a heartbreaking question.

To us, For Sama is one of the most profoundly intimate depictions of the Syrian conflict ever put to film. It’s the push to help those on the outside process something so incomprehensible in the depth of its horrors. For al-Kateab, however, it’s not only a memorial to all that she’s sacrificed as a mother, but a rebellion against those who have made her suffer. One day, she hopes, Sama will see and understand everything that they’ve been through. As she recounts, al-Kateab left her family at 18 to study at Aleppo University, where she witnessed first-hand the unrest that grew out of the Arab Spring protests. It’s also where she met Hamza, who had graduated as a doctor and was one of the few committed to helping those who had taken to the streets. At one point, we see footage from their wedding celebrations, as she reflects on how, that precious night, the mirth and music had been loud enough to drown out the sound of the bombs.

By late 2016, eight out of the nine hospitals in East Aleppo had been destroyed. Hamza’s was the only one left. He and the handful of other doctors who had stayed behind worked tirelessly as hundreds of victims passed through their doors. It was chaos, but they stayed focused on their work, even when the water was cut off and it becomes harder than ever to clean the vast pools of blood collecting on the floor. Al-Kateab’s footage isn’t always chronologically presented. It’s allowed to be shaped by her own impulses as a narrator, flitting between thoughts and emotions. She shares directing credit here with Edward Watts, a documentarian who has worked extensively with Channel 4, the network who also produced al-Kateab’s series of dispatches titled Inside Aleppo. With the help of editors Chloe Lambourne and Simon McMahon, a few more cinematic touches have been added, such as the stirring violins that underscore the family’s attempt to evade the Syrian armed forces and sneak back into the city after they’d left to visit Hamza’s ailing father. Yet the film lacks any of the editorialising, the imposed perspective, or the considered distance that an outsider might place on the story in order to make it fit better into the existing narratives about Syria. The sense of context is limited, though we’re always aware that the planes dropping bombs on hospitals have been sent by Russia.

This a woman simply telling her own story, having had the impulse to pick up a camera and start rolling. Al-Kateab’s filmmaking is startlingly instinctual. There’s a scene involving an emergency C-section that is framed so perfectly, and with such deep emotional investment, that you’d think it was dramatised. As easy as it’d be to celebrate For Sama as a great call for empathy and urgent action, that’s also potentially attaching motivations to it that aren’t there. Or, at least, aren’t the driving force behind its existence. We only react in such a way because there’s nothing else to do when faced with two weeping, dust-covered boys, standing at the threshold of an emergency room in shock as their brother lies dead on a gurney. There is footage here that will make you sick to your stomach, but For Sama is such a towering achievement because it captures with equal clarity the moments between the terror. It shows us how people can survive under a veil of normalcy. Sometimes they’re able to laugh off the airstrikes. At other times, someone in the group is killed and they’re choked into silence. It’s a life of total impermanence, where al-Kateab can’t even take pride in caring for the flowers in her back garden, since those too are inevitably destroyed.

At one point, she watches a boy play with the cutouts he’s made of his friends who have left the city. As a filmmaker, she’s preoccupied with the children of the city, as she lets the camera scan their faces, looking desperately for the first signs that trauma has taken a hold of them. Why does a little girl know what a cluster bomb is? Why should any child be exposed to these man-made cruelties? “You never cry like a normal baby would,” she says of Sama. It’s an acknowledgement of her worst fears. Wars never end for those caught in their grip, however young, because trauma never allows its victims to be truly set free. It’s a difficult thing to come to terms with but, in For Sama, al-Kateab wrestles with her reality with incredible bravery and determination.

For Sama is released in UK cinemas on 13 September

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in