For Sama is a documentary, directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, focused on the female experience of war, a real-time narrative compiling Waad’s horrifying experiences in Aleppo. Told as a nonlinear “love letter” from mother to daughter, Waad struggles with the struggle between her daughter’s safety and fighting for the Syria she and her people believe in. (BV 4.5/5.0)
Review by Junior Associate Beatrice Viri
For Sama recounts Waad al-Kateab’s experiences in Syria; she is an economics student studying at the University of Aleppo before chaos unfolds the country. Waad and her friend Hazma are familiar with protesting; protests are peaceful, but Assad’s reign soon becomes more violent and authoritarian. At first, Waad admits that she was not interested in the conflict, but soon becomes wrapped up in the cause and documents the cruelty the military and regime commit. She becomes a citizen journalist and streams to the world, while Hazma heads a hospital as Assad attempts to silence those against his rule.
Despite the conflict going on in their lives, Waad, Hazma, and the people around them still attempt a sense of normalcy. Waad and Hazma fall in love, get married and have a wedding, the radio playing loudly to drown out bombings occurring outside. Eventually, Waad gives birth to their daughter Sama. However, strikes become more frequent, happening several times a day until the once vivacious city is in ruins.
Through this live footage of the bombings in Aleppo, we are given intimate imagery of the spoils of war: children found dead under rubble, a pregnant woman giving birth to a stillborn, among depictions of grief as family members call out names. But we are also given those small slivers of hope, those details of daily lives. Hundreds of hours of footage were captured in the making of For Sama, and Waad conscientiously compiles these moments in a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching film that will make even those with low levels of empathy feel sorrow of people we’ve ignored and left behind.
The ethics of documentary film can be morally grey at times; throughout the film, I felt like a voyeur to such unspeakable pain. However, unlike other cases of observational documentaries, this is footage that al-Kateab filmed herself and risked her life for, so in this particular case it’s necessary for us to see. For Sama is one of the most important films you’ll see all year; we cannot waste the lives of Waad, Hazma, and the others who fought bravely, stayed in and died in Aleppo. The firsthand account is raw and uncensored, and I physically felt my heart breaking at each loss we saw on screen.
For Sama is incredibly graphic and does not shy away from difficult topics— child death, lost limbs, blood paving the streets. Mothers sob over their dead children, children lose their siblings and parents; hundreds of these cases happen every day, and the cost of war is paid with innocents. The grief in their faces is uncomfortably intimate; I was on the verge of tears through the entire film because of the subject in general, but it also took me back into my own experiences with grief. It’s definitely triggering, but that’s the point— still, you have been fervently warned.
It’s controversial that Waad kept her daughter while fighting for the cause, and something others may not understand, especially as the al-Kateabs are given an opportunity to leave their daughter in Turkey with Waad’s parents. But children instill a reason to hope and to keep on fighting, especially in a place where bombings happen endlessly. Having Sama around potentially saved Waad and Hazma’s lives, keeping them grounded despite the despair going on around them. Waad even says in the film that Sama was not just their daughter, but the hospital’s daughter as well, their source of happiness while forced to witness countless tragedies everyday. Many children also did not want to leave, because they loved Aleppo; I’m sure they understood why their parents stayed, children are so much more perceptive than adults think.
The morality is conflicting, but Waad attempts to show us why she kept her daughter with her, even saying in the beginning that she hoped Sama would understand her personal responsibilty. We who are privileged enough to never have experienced war will never fully understand why those who stay do; it’s important to respect these difficult decisions people make, especially when we are not making them.
For Sama stirs up myriad complicated emotions— but as a film it’s so necessary, so intimate, so real. It shows how human those caught up in war are; most of the time they’re civilians caught in the middle of corrupt politics. They tried to laugh in spite of death, and they loved their country. And this is all still happening; at the Q & A during 51fest, Waad and Hazma talk about Idlib, the city where residents of Aleppo were displaced, and how it is still being bombed. This form of documentary film is one of the most important of all— to bring awareness to the stories, to inform the world of the injustices going on.
© Beatrice Viri FF2 Media 07/28/2019
Photos: Waad al-Kateab with her daughter Sama in For Sama‘s promotional poster, Waad al-Kateab as herself in For Sama
Photo Credits: Waad al-Kateab
Does For Sama pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?