For Sama Review

For Sama
Between 2012 and 2016, journalist Waad al-Kateab documents her life during president Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime in Aleppo, Syria. During that time, as the conflict escalates, she falls in love, gets married and has a baby girl, Sama. Her daughter forces al-Kateab to debate fleeing the city to protect her daughter or staying to fight for the freedom she believes in.

by Ian Freer |
Published on
Release Date:

13 Sep 2019

Original Title:

For Sama

Part hardcore news reportage, part intimate memoir, For Sama is a compelling dispatch from deep inside the Syrian conflict. Directed by Waad al-Kateab and UK non-fiction filmmaker Edward Watts, produced by Channel 4 and ITN, the film takes the immediacy of the best on-the-ground reporting but melds it with a touching portrait of family life during wartime. The result brings the unimaginable to moving, vivid life.

It will break your heart.

For Sama takes al-Kateab’s footage, interspersed with drone imagery of Aleppo looking increasingly battered, to chart the conflicts between 2012 and 2016 when the documentarian fled Syria with her husband Hamza and infant daughter Sama. The latter is the film’s raison d’être: a video diary/letter from mother to daughter explaining not only the conflict but perhaps more importantly why her parents made the (on the surface, baffling) choices they made. For Sama poses tough questions — why would you bring a child into this living, breathing nightmare? Why wouldn’t you just run? — and al-Kateab and Watts’ compelling film provides the answers. And then some.

In 2012, al-Kateab was a twenty-something studying economics at Aleppo University when she started documenting the growing protests against president Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive dictatorship, filled with that student sense of militant optimism. As the years go by and al Assad’s regime, aided by Russian money and warplanes, becomes more horrific, al-Kateab continues to film, her camera detailing the uncertainty and panic that filled every minute of her day. The unforgettable moments come thick and fast — the time al Assad’s forces are one street away; a tense nighttime drive to get through a regime checkpoint; and most amazingly, when a doctor conducts a Caesarean section to remove a dead baby from its wounded mother’s womb. What happens next is one of the most miraculous things to appear in a cinema this year.

For Sama is a film filled with dead, bloodied bodies — often children — but while you never grow inured to it, life for Aleppo’s citizens continues. Phone conversations carry on during shelling. A little girl nonchalantly explains what a cluster bomb is. Normalcy is snatched, be it dancing to Julio Iglesias’ Crazy at a wedding or singing the old songs in a blackout during the air strikes.

It’s not a perfect film. The structure flits around confusing the chronology. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Waad and her heroic doctor husband Hamza, who courageously stays behind to start a hospital where the family live. Your admiration for their decision to do what’s right and preserve life — both in surgery and on film — knows no bounds. Towards the end, Waad stares at Sama as she remains impervious to the carnage that surrounds her. “I know you know what’s going on. I can see it in your eyes. You never cry like a normal baby. That’s what breaks my heart.” It will break your heart too.

For Sama powerfully mixes the personal and the political to thought-provoking, emotional ends. The result is one of the best documentaries of 2019.
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