For Sama is a tough watch but an essential one. As difficult as it can be seeing the lives of families and their children ravaged by conflict, it feels like the least we can do is take 90 minutes out to listen to their voices. At the same time, co-director Waad al-Kateab’s film diary made for her first born daughter, Sama, is a love letter to their home city, Aleppo, and is testament to the extraordinary strength of character and resilience shown by its people when faced with such overwhelming adversity.
The revolution in Syria has long since disappeared from the main news headlines in the West, but even as it rages on its legacy has had a lasting effect on the millions who have been displaced from their homes and used as political pawns across the world. Waad al-Kateab acts as director, narrator and subject in a deeply affecting documentary that immerses us into the heart of the conflict between 2011 and 2016. It offers a first person perspective of a determined activist, journalist, mother, wife and survivor while chaos rules all around her.
Back in 2011, then student al-Kateab started filming the peaceful pro-democracy protests being held on campus against President Assad’s brutal regime. Working with co-director Edward Watts, she cuts back and forth between the final six months of her time spent in Aleppo with her doctor husband Hamza and one-year-old daughter Sama, and the scaling up of the conflict over a five year period. Her aim was to explain to Sama the reasons why they chose to stay in the city when the obvious choice would’ve been to flee. They were determined to resist the government forces and supporting Russian military, but their decision to remain weighed heavily on al-Kateab as concerns grew about the price that had to be paid.
Her raw materials included a camcorder that recorded the shelling and destruction of the city. She captured between 300-500 hours of film that have been distilled down into 96 devastating minutes, showing us the madness of life in Aleppo and the seemingly unbreakable spirit of those who chose to stay until the very last. During this period Hamza managed to open a hospital with the help of other like-minded volunteers, the group forming a tight-knit family helping thousands of wounded people every month. It eventually became their home once Assad’s forces started to close in on the city and practically the only environment young Sama saw for her first year alive.
For Sama also tells us the love story of al-Kateab and Hamza and how they went from politically-active friends, to husband and wife and then mother and father. What al-Kateab shows is how life carried on despite the near-constant explosions that had everyone fearing their time could be up at any moment. Bombs explode on homes and in and around the hospital, sending them down to huddle in the basement. Yet they kept in good spirits by telling jokes and raising laughs that allowed them to keep their sanity. Countless friends and loved ones were lost along the way, but without the sacrifices they made to save the lives of others the death count would’ve been much higher.
Without doubt the most harrowing moments of the film involve the young children who have been killed by Assad and his Russian allies. Seeing their tiny, limp bodies carried in by distraught brothers, uncles and mothers hoping they can be saved is truly heartbreaking. While the title is named after her first daughter (she also gave birth to a second), al-Kateab gives voice to Aleppo’s children whose innocence was destroyed with the firing of every bullet and dropping of every bomb. One scene in particular involving a caesarean-born baby appears as if it will have the most tragic of endings, but just when it seems miracles have abandoned the city entirely, salvation is mercifully granted.
Nearly all of the footage was shot on al-Kateab’s personal mobile or camcorder, but on occasion it cuts to panoramic views of Aleppo captured via a DJI drone. This shows the scale of the assault that has taken place on the city, with smoke billowing across broken buildings and bleeding into the musky skyline as the sun disappears from view. The sound of fighter jets and war airplanes provide a constant unnerving soundtrack, while Nainita Desai’s score is carefully used throughout without intruding on the meaning of the images being shown.
While al-Kateab and her family have since been able to find asylum in London, there are millions in the country who are still under siege. What she has managed to capture here is nothing short of remarkable and it represents not only fellow Syrians, but regular people around the world dealing with daily conflict. While politicians play games with the lives of innocents, it’s the ordinary people who are left to pick up the pieces. There’s a shared humanity that can be too easily forgotten, and this is a stark reminder of just how lucky we are.
For Sama opens in select cinemas on September 13.