WORLD CIRCUIT: “We never thought the world would let this happen,” so laments director Waad al-Kateab in the opening scenes of her film “For Sama“, co-directed by Edward Watts. This deeply personal documentary is not the first to depict the ongoing Syrian Civil War, but the sentiment behind that statement remains as vital as ever. As she recounts her experiences during five years of the conflict, this harrowing film reminds us of one of the most urgent human rights crises of our time.
Framed as a letter to al-Kateab’s titular baby daughter, “For Sama” chronicles the personal and societal events in the city of Aleppo in the early years of its civil war. From peaceful protests spearheaded by university students, through the subsequent violent retaliation by Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime, the film paints a dismaying picture of a city under siege. As al-Kateab reflects on her life during this troubled time with the aid of her own recorded footage, she invites the audience to see both the resilience and hopelessness shared by her people.
Indeed, the footage captured is bracing in its immediacy, as al-Kateab employs her handheld camera to great effect. As the camera shakes and disorients with each haphazard airstrike, it gives a strong sense of the precarious situation at hand. Throughout the mayhem, al-Kateab remains steadfast, never shying away from the horrors as they unfold. Through wrenching scenes like those of mothers clinging to their dead children and the deadly aftermath of a makeshift hospital’s bombing, the film is a testament to the importance of civilian activism and journalism. And the immense pain and frustration behind the filmmaking is further driven home as one distraught woman screams towards the camera, “Why are they doing this to us? Film this!”
The palpable despair often makes for a truly depressing viewing experience. But al-Kateab adds another uplifting side to the story that emphasizes the precious humanity at stake. Using her narration as a kind of ongoing conversation with her young child, she ruminates on the resilience of the people and the life that Sama and other children represent. Going back and forth through the momentous events of her life, we also get to see moments of jubilation.
Whether it’s the initial optimism of the revolution, or the joys of starting a new family, Waad al-Kateab’s holistic approach is touchingly honest. Amid the ruins of a once vibrant city and the omnipresent fear of death, life continues through weddings, the birth of a child, or the heroic acts of people like Waad al-Kateab and her husband, who tirelessly ensured that medical access was available. Though Waad al-Kateab may have dedicated the film to her daughter, “For Sama” ultimately resonates as a heartfelt love letter to Aleppo, its people and the power of goodness in the face of evil.