World

For Sama review – affecting chronicle of life in war-torn Aleppo

There is a scene in the middle of this powerful, harrowing and deeply human documentary about life under siege in Aleppo, Syria, that perfectly encapsulates its mixture of horror and hope. In the terrible aftermath of yet another airstrike, a pregnant woman with broken limbs and shrapnel in her belly is brought into a makeshift theatre in al-Quds hospital. An emergency caesarean brings her critically unresponsive child into this world of carnage – a terrible, pitiable sight, made all the more unwatchable by the certainty that nothing so vulnerable could possibly survive such violence. Syrian citizen-journalist and mother Waad al-Kateab, whose frontline footage was seen in Channel 4 News’s Inside Aleppo reports, keeps filming, determined to bring such daily atrocities to the attention of the world. And then, as the spectacle seems too cruel to endure, a miracle occurs, offering a gasping glimpse of redemption amid this unfolding hell.

There are many moments in For Sama when audiences will want to look away, not least because so many of the victims being dragged out of ravaged buildings or laid out on blood-soaked floors are children. These are kids who have grown up amid a cacophony of deafening explosions to which they no longer react; whose earliest words include “air raid” and “cluster bomb”; who play among the wreckage of burnt-out buses; and whose young friends have either moved away or died. The documentary itself is addressed and dedicated to a child – Waad’s daughter, Sama – whom we first meet as smoke fills the corridors of the hospital in which she lives, while her mother cries: “Who’s got my girl? Where’s my girl?”

This is Syria in 2016, with the Assad regime, supported by the Russian air force, indiscriminately pummelling Aleppo, hitting houses and hospitals alike. Waad moved here as a student several years earlier, full of hope for change. “For such a long time we were sure we would win,” she declares, a belief shared by the fellow activists caught on Waad’s mobile-phone footage, endangered yet optimistic.

Hamza al-Kateab (centre) holding baby Sama in For Sama.





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Hamza al-Kateab (centre) holding baby Sama in For Sama.

A handsome medic, Hamza, shares her passion and declares his love for Waad, even as the violence around them escalates. The couple marry against the incessant backdrop of the conflict, celebrating with songs “louder than bombs”. While Hamza and his colleagues tend to the increasing casualties (they have to move buildings after their hospital is destroyed), Waad films their lives and struggles, a process that “gives me a reason to be here”, even after the birth of Sama, for whom this documentary is intended as both a “love letter” and an explanation.

“Will you blame me for staying here or blame me for leaving?” Waad asks in her quietly poetic narration. It’s a question that lies at the very heart of For Sama, wherein we see Waad and Hamza returning to the besieged city after visiting relatives in Turkey, with their daughter in their arms, dodging barrel bombs and sniper fire, certain that “everyone has a role to play” in this struggle – even Sama. “I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did,” says Waad, before admitting candidly that “the truth is, I can’t believe we did it now”.

Like Sean McAllister’s heart-breaking documentary A Syrian Love Story, For Sama interweaves its very personal narrative with a broader political story, finding the bigger picture in the tiniest of details. Co-directed by seasoned film-maker Edward Watts, it presents a collage of images gathered over a period of five years, elegantly edited to allow the narrative to slip back and forth in time with deceptive ease. While much of the material may be shocking (the BBFC’s 18 rating warns of “disturbing scenes” and “images of real dead bodies” that “may cause distress to some viewers”), it’s the simple human interactions that really hit home – the day-to-day comradeship of women stoically preparing food while fire falls from the sky; the resilience of children who still smile and play even as their lives are threatened. In one scene, the appearance of a persimmon fruit produces an outpouring of joy that is as unexpected as it is uplifting, albeit only fleetingly.

With footage as raw and dramatic as this, it’s a credit to composer Nainita Desai that her score remains restrained and understated throughout, emphasising subtler themes of endurance and empathy, while gesturing gently toward the possibility of hope – of love – even in the midst of tragedy.




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Watch a trailer for For Sama.
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