review by lorraine james
For Sama is the first feature documentary from Waad Al-Khateab and Edward Watts. Filmed in Aleppo, Syria, by rebel Al-Khateab over five years, it spans the first peaceful student protests in 2012, and concludes in 2016 as Al-Khateab flees with her husband and child. This is a no holds barred documentary about life as it unfolds in a conflict zone.
This is not the comfy armchair view of war as normally seen on the six o’clock news. This is hard hitting and uncomfortable. It is harrowing and gruesome. I guarantee you that unless you yourself have lived in a war zone or fought in one, this will be as shocking as it gets. It’s not that Al-Khateab is trying to sensationalize what is happening, quite the opposite; it is a compassionate and humanitarian view. It is the very fact that she is filming domestic life as it unfolds at the same time as capturing the casualties and realities of war that demonstrates this.
Bombs, shells and rockets fall around her, killing and maiming, destroying the city and reducing it to rubble at the same time as domestic life continues, making for a shocking contrast. It charts El-Khateab falling in love and marrying a doctor, Hamza, buying a house, and having a child. It focuses on their relationships with co-worker volunteers as the siege intensifies, and everyday tragedies are shown side by side with lifesaving miracles.
For Sama reads like a love letter as Al-Khateab narrates the unfolding scenes to her child, justifying decisions she has made, and explaining the importance of what she clearly sees as her life’s work to record for the world the truth and cruelty of the siege of Aleppo. The voiceover also helps in understanding the time sequence of the film, which is presented in a non-linear fashion.
This film invites you to go on a journey of hope as Hamza and his colleagues work to save the casualties brought into the hospital. It asks you to look at the resilience of the civilian population and to question how this could have been allowed to happen. It will also force you to look unflinchingly at the brutality of a regime that targeted innocent children and one that actively bombed hospitals. It is not easy to remain dry eyed as the hospital floor is awash with blood, as the broken bodies of children are carried in by their loved ones, and as mothers hold their dead children to their breasts.
This might not be your first choice of film for light entertainment, but I would strongly urge you to go and see it. For Sama has won numerous awards for Best Documentary and in human rights circles, and it’s easy to see why. It’s thought provoking, it’s shocking, it is human beings at their best and their worst, and it will be with you long after you have left the comfort of the cinema and returned to the outside world. It will suddenly feel a little too bright, a little too clean, very ordered, and very safe.
For Sama will screen in the IFI throughout September.