Film Review: FOR SAMA (2019) DIRS. WAAD AL-KATEAB & EDWARD WATTS
By: Belle McIntyre
This gut-wrenching documentary by Waad Al-Kateab is one of the most compelling indictments of the unspeakable devastation of war on non-combatant populations. It begins in 2012 during the Arab Spring uprising, when Waad is a student activist engaged in the protests. As they become increasingly intense and violent, she is filming all that is happening around her. During that time she meets fellow activist, Hamza, a medical student. When the protests dissolve into widespread civil war and spread to Aleppo, many were fleeing the embattled city. The more intrepid activists decided to stay behind believing that the revolutionary army could save the country and topple Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorship. Waad became passionately dedicated to reporting the events and posting them on her website to bring attention to the rest of the world. She never flinches from the atrocities that she sees. It is as if her camera refuses to stop recording the systematic destruction of Aleppo with constant shelling and eventual bombing. It is grim work.
By this time Hamza has become a doctor and they have fallen in love. They actually have a proper wedding and a home in the midst of war-torn Aleppo. Hamza has taken charge of an understaffed hospital taking care of the civilian casualties as well as rebel soldiers. The conditions are terribly bleak and the casualties are non-stop and getting worse and Waad becomes pregnant. It is then that she begins dedicating her film to her daughter Sama. Her work becomes more urgent and is being picked up in Europe where she is being recognized. She films the horrors at the hospital as a steady stream of wounded and sick men, women and children arrive with terrible injuries. The doctors and nurses are heroic, working around the clock under impossible conditions. Her camera is as unflinching and unstoppable as the doctors and the war.
And when it seems that it cannot get worse, the Russians begin bombing the hospitals. This is when it becomes almost unbearable to watch at times. The amazing things that she is able to capture are the specific moments of humanity and camaraderie among the hospital staff during the few calm moments. Her baby girl, Sama, brings a spot of joy and normalcy to all of them. The baby is so innocent and remarkably resilient as she is too young to realize what is happening. She seems to have a calming effect on the adults. The fearlessness of Waad as she continues her reporting is belied by the voice over which accompanies the film’s footage of the carnage and destruction. Her words are a form of apologia to Sama for bringing her into this horrendous milieu as she tries to explain the circumstances and justify the choices.
When the hospital is bombed, they must find another building and move all of the patients and equipment. They perform impossible feats of bravery and ingenuity. Even when their house is destroyed and they are able to leave Aleppo, and leave Sama with her grandparents, they decide to come back and bring the baby with them. Their dedication and belief that they can help save their country does not waver until the inevitability of the fall of Aleppo in 2016. When they finally flee the city Waad is again pregnant. They are able to emigrate to England. All four of them now live in London where Waad continues to make documentary films and speak out on behalf of the Syrian people against Assad. They are both still doing all that they can to expose the unjustifiable cruelty and destruction to their country by a murderous dictator, which continues to this day. If the world finally wakes up and decides to demand justice for Syria, they will surely deserve some credit for it. This is a powerful and unforgettable piece of witnessing. It deserves widespread viewing. If anything can influence hearts and minds, this could be the thing.