I have to admit, I was sceptical when I entered the movie theatre to watch For Sama, Syrian documentary filmmaker Waad al-Kateab’s film about the life in war-torn Aleppo, dedicated to her daughter. But at the end of the movie I walked out seeing what is probably the documentary of the decade.
The reason for the scepticism was not the story, I did not doubt its power. Al-Kateab, a journalist, documentary filmmaker and member of the rebel forces decides to stay in Aleppo with her husband and other rebels during constant airstrikes and the siege imposed by the Syrian government and its allies. She films their everyday life in Aleppo since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011 until Aleppo’s surrender and evacuation in December of 2016. Sama, her daughter, was born during the war and this is her mother’s message to her, to explain the decisions she and her husband made when they chose to stay. My fear was seeing ‘just another’ war movie using all the lurid, effect-calculating tools catastrophe-documentaries often fall in the trap of. However, the story that unfolds is something frighteningly exceptional.
As a student at Aleppo University, al-Kateab started filming shaky, low-quality snap videos on either her mobile phone or a regular video camera since the first days of the revolution. She brings her camera to the first mass protests at the university, the first airstrikes and the formation of the rebel stronghold as the bloodiest war of this decade unfolds in front of the viewers’ eyes, dragging them into the depths of a living hell.
Yet there is another dimension to this. It is also a video-diary where al-Kateab, a cheerful and wild young girl, pushes the camera in the faces of her friends, asking them random questions about what they are thinking at the moment. She films the rawest possible presentation of passionate young souls living with the terror and carnage that slowly crawls into their lives. This is until the moment of the birth of her daughter. The clear-cut switch between al-Kateab as the reckless rebel/journalist, and the mother, is the point where everything changes irreversibly.
The camerawork provides an authenticity rarely seen before. The monumental, almost bird’s-eye videos of bombs being thrown on Aleppo and essentially turning it into a city of the dead glue together the hand-filmed videos, so trembling they make the viewers’ head ache but so real they make them hold their breath. Among others they show airstrikes hitting the house when al-Kateab is putting Sama to sleep; deaths and resurrections in the hospital where Sama’s husband, Hamza is one of the handful nurses that still remained; trying to calm a child’s crying with merry songs near military frontlines and interviews with children who allow a horroristic glance into a child-of-war’s psyche. But they are also about cooking food, playing, hanging out in friends’ apartment in the evening and celebrating a wedding: they are about humans living life.
Despite familiar patterns in some places, For Sama could never be accused of pulling overly lurid, cliché narrative as the film must be judged as a whole. al-Kateab’s and her husband’s private war between their identities as rebels and parents is devastating and their choices are often hard for the viewer to understand. The inhumanity is numbing and the pain is real. There is no intentional romanticising to the story, it is a flesh-and-blood reality of parenthood, political activism, childhood and friendship that blooms like flowers in a sea of concrete, waiting to be destroyed any second.
Image Credit: watchsmart via Flickr