“For Sama” - Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts (2019)

Documentary films about war-torn areas of the world are likely to draw attention, for awhile, but oftentimes their popularity is only temporary.  The situation on the ground soon changes, and people move on to watching other news.  However, For Sama (2019), a documentary of a young woman describing her experiences during the Battle of Aleppo [1] during the Syrian Civil War [2], is different and likely to experience sustained interest.  This film is so personal and offers such an immediate, closeup view of people and what is happening to them that the viewer is likely to feel personal involvement in what is shown.

Anyway, the Syrian Civil War (2011-now) has been so turbulent and complicated that a simple summary of what has transpired seems hardly possible.  With perhaps 500,000 people killed and millions of refugees, this conflict has been a never-ending nightmare for those living in the region [3].  And the numerous identities of the various shifting warring factions have been difficult to trace and keep up with over this time.  These include
  • The Syrian Government, supported by
    • Hezbollah
    • Shia militias 
    • Iranian agents
    • the Russian military
  • The Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army
    • other Sunni groups, such as the Levant Front 
  • Other groups, with their own separate agendas
    • the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front
    • the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units
    • the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army
    • . . .
The film For Sama doesn’t cover that wider perspective of this conflict and instead follows the personal experiences of a young woman, Waad Al-Kateab [4], who moved to Aleppo in 2009 to study economics at the university there and ultimately found herself immersed in the tumultuous Battle of Aleppo (2012-2016) [1] that soon emerged.  Over this period Waad took hundreds of hours of film footage, first with her mobile-phone camera and later with a digital camera.  After she and her family managed to escape with their lives from Syria and flee first to Turkey and then to England, Waad hooked up with documentary filmmaker Edward Watts to work on editing her accumulated footage into a feature-length documentary.  The resulting film was very well received [5,6,7,8,9], and it wound up winning the British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) for Best Documentary (it also received BAFTA nominations in three other categories) and also earning a U.S. Academy Award (Oscar) nomination for Best Documentary Feature. 

Certainly Waad Al-Kateab was in a special position to observe what was going on in Aleppo.  In connection with the “Arab Spring” of that time, she became a student activist in 2011, joining those opposed to the corruption of Assad family, which has ruthlessly ruled Syria for decades.  This was when she began recording events going on around her with her mobile-phone camera.  She soon refers to and photographs a friend, Hamza Al-Kateab, who is a medical doctor and also a dedicated activist member of the Syrian opposition.  Hamza is married at the time, but when his wife desperately wants to flee the rising violence in Aleppo, Hamza insists in staying to fight for his cause.  So the two of them separate, and Hamza remains alone in Aleppo.

Not long afterwards, Hamza and Waad fall in love and eventually get married in 2014.  Both Hamza and Waad want to stay in Aleppo and help the poor people who are suffering there.  Hamza’s heroic efforts to treat and help people who suffer from the effects of the Assad government’s chlorine gas, cluster bombs and barrel bombs attacks become a principal focus of the film.

During the period of this film, the Al-Kateabs are shown living in the rebel-held eastern portion of  Aleppo, which is continually under siege and facing attacks from government forces and their Russian allies.  As a result, the besieged rebel-held area is continually shrinking and suffering from basic shortages.  But thanks to the personal nature of Waad’s filming, we see happier moments, too.  There is the joyful wedding and reception of Waad and Hamza.  There are also scenes of kids attending school and of neighbour friends fondly playing with their young children.  And most importantly, there is the joyous footage showing the birth of Waad’s daughter, Sama, in 2016 and to whom this film is dedicated.

Now, the most straightforward way of presenting the events of this film would have been to do so along a linear chronological timescale.  But as the filmmakers were assembling their material, they could see that the narrative they were constructing was one showing continuous decline, as the besieging government forces closed in on the rebel-held area.   But even so, the life of the Al Kateabs was not one of relentless doom.  They were working continuously to save lives and hold out for freedom.  So the filmmakers chose to build something of a cinematic poem dedicated to Sama, featuring many flashbacks, even though Sama only appears chronologically late in the piece.  Thus Sama is shown at the beginning of the film, and the various flashbacks ensue.  Waad Al Kateab states in the film voiceover that she wanted to make this film for Sama so that when the child grew up, she could see it and understand why her mother chose to stay in Aleppo and help people during those harrowing times.  Nevertheless, I would say that this flashback-studded structure of the film has serious problems and often leaves the viewer even more disoriented than necessary.

There are some truly memorable events shown in the film, though, and I have already mentioned some of the happier ones, such as the wedding of Waad and Hamza.  Sadly memorable, too, is coverage of the deaths of young kids who were playing during a government air-strike.  And perhaps the most gripping moments are shots of a cesarean-section delivery of an apparently stillborn baby.  Frantic efforts at resuscitation appear to be fruitless, but finally, after hope has been all but abandoned, the baby lets out a cry of life.  And Waad captured it all with her camera.  

Eventually, in increasing efforts to demoralize the people and crush the will of the resistance, the Russian air force starts bombing hospitals and ambulances.  Finally, eight of the nine hospitals in east Aleppo are destroyed, and only Hamza’s hospital is still operating.  Then, when Hamza and Waad are momentarily away from their hospital, it, too, is destroyed in an air-strike that kills 53 people.  But that doesn’t stop Hamza.  He goes out and finds another building and sets up a makeshift hospital there so that he can keep carrying out his lifesaving medical care.  In this connection, Hamza mentions in the film that in their last twenty days in Aleppo in 2016, they received 6,000 wounded people and performed 890 operations. 

Finally, at the end of 2016, a coerced surrender was shabbily negotiated by the U N, and the Hamza and Waad  –  along with her hundreds of hours of camera footage and her daughter Sama – made their way out of Syria and eventually to England.

The story that Waad Al-Kateab tells in For Sama is unique and personal.  What we see are people we can relate to who are just trying to get on with their lives.  And the film also offers  a fresh perspective on the Syrian Civil War.  Western reportage has tended to oversimplify things by portraying the two combatting sides as equally flawed – a corrupt regime against extremist Islamic terrorists.  This superficial view has frustrated the Al-Kateabs, who acknowledge that although Islamic extremists did briefly try unsuccessfully try to take over the rebellion, nevertheless, the Al-Kateabs assert, the atrocities committed by their opponents, the ruthless Assad regime and their allies, have been far worse and more brutal [10,11].

Overall, we can only be impressed by the dedication and heroic self-sacrifice of Waad and Hamza Al-Kateab.  But the film For Sama has some weaknesses that must be recognized.  For one thing, and as I mentioned earlier, the flashback time structure to the film is confusing and basically doesn’t work.  We often don’t know where we are in terms of the basic sequence of events.  Nor is the basic time sequence of events replaced by some other clear-cut narrative structure to which we could relate.  Instead, we just seem to have a random sequence of scenes.  The many fade-outs and fade-ins help a little, but only so much.

Another problem concerns the chaotic camera work of Waad Al-Kateab.  There are too many wildly-shaky moving-camera shots down random corridors, and these shots are disorienting and contribute little to the story – other than to suggest hysteria.  But even if the filmmakers want to evoke hysteria, this is overdone in this film.

So in the end, even though I would give four stars to Waad and Hamza Al-Kateab for their heroic efforts, I can’t quite do that for this film.  Still, I think you will find it of interest.

  1. “Battle of Aleppo (2012–2016)”, Wikipedia, (5 July 2020).   
  2. “Syrian civil war”, Wikipedia, (7 July 2020).   
  3. “Casualties of the Syrian Civil War”, Wikipedia, (3 July 2020).    
  4. “Waad Al-Kateab” is a pseudonym.
  5. Tomris Laffly, “For Sama”, RogerEbert.com, (25 July 2019).   
  6. Emily Zemler, “‘For Sama’ filmmaker captures the pain and destruction of war in Syria”, Los Angeles Times, (24 January 2020).   
  7. Eleanor Stanford, “After ‘For Sama,’ a Syrian Family Finds Refuge in London”, The New York Times, (20 November 2019).   
  8. Mark Kermode, “For Sama review – affecting chronicle of life in war-torn Aleppo”, The Guardian(15 September 2019).   
  9. Kate Kellaway, “‘My daughter was raised during the siege of Aleppo. I had to make a film for her’”, The Guardian, (11 December 2019).   
  10. Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, “‘It Is Not Just War. It Is Life’: Acclaimed Doc ‘For Sama’ Offers Rare Glimpse into War-Torn Syria”, Democracy Now!, (18 July 2019).   
  11. Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, “‘For Sama’ Documentary Compiles Five Years of Footage from Aleppo by Syrian Citizen Journalist”, Democracy Now!, (19 July 2019).   

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