Director-Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
Starring-Waad al-Kateab, Hanza al-Kateab
Scott’s Review #1,044
Reviewed July 25, 2020
The wonderful thing about documentaries is that a viewer can absorb and learn something they have not been exposed to and know little or nothing about. Aware via news outlets of unrest in Syria, For Sama (2019) personalizes and humanizes the battles as the film chronicles the life of a young Syrian woman and her husband, both rebels and he a doctor, with a young daughter born and raised amid the war ravaged city of Aleppo from 2011-2016.
For Sama is horrifically brutal and unkind at times, but to soften the experience would be to do an injustice to those on the front lines living with war every day. The viewer should see firsthand the inhumanity and terror imposed on innocent civilians before they are cavalier to what the effects of war really are. The film bravely shows both human suffering and death including dead children. Waad al-Kateab wrote, produced, co-directed and stars in this brutal yet hopeful production. She also narrates it.
Waad al-Kateab focuses on a five-year span of time living in Aleppo, Syria before and during the infamous Battle of Aleppo, a major military confrontation between the Syrian government and its opposition. She is a marketing student when the documentary begins and highly intelligent. Waad al-Kateab meets and falls in love with Hamza, a skilled doctor whose wife has already fled for safety leaving him behind. Waad gives birth to her first daughter Sama and navigates motherhood all while the conflict begins to engulf the city.
Waad and Hamza work at one of the few remaining hospitals in the city, facing daily agonizing decisions whether to flee to safety or stay behind to help the innocent victims of war. Despite having Sama and later becoming pregnant again, they cannot bring themselves to leave as it would be abandoning those who rely on them. The documentary features their friends who also stay on, refusing to leave the city they still love. The group tries for brief moments of pleasure, sitting around and chatting, all while the constant threat of bombings is a daily occurrence.
Intriguing is that For Sama is told from the perspective of the female. This is unusual in the war genre, whether it be a film or a documentary feature as more common is for it to be male driven. When she provides narration, Waad gives off a warmth and a kindness that is tough not to fall in love with. She cares for Sama, never knowing if today will be their last day alive. In one frightening moment, Waad quickly gives Sama to another person to hide when the bombs start hitting the hospital, determined that Sama’s life might be spared if she is thought to be an orphan, rather than the spawn of hated rebels.
Props must be given for getting this project off the ground and released, rewarded with wide acclaim and recognition. In a country as volatile as Syria, how inspiring to have someone like Edward Watts, an English film maker, able to follow through with For Sama. Amazing is how some footage especially during the bombings was spared.
Waad explains how determined she was to film as much as she possibly could, even during very personal moments. In the most heartbreaking scene, a pregnant woman is injured during a bombing and her lifeless baby is born. After minutes of real-time uncertainty, the baby finally coughs and gags and is alive. Watts and Waad go to horrific depths to show how close the baby comes to dying and the scene is fraught with sadness and finally relief. I have never seen moments as chilling as these in any documentary.
Other scenes feature young boy’s whose playmates or siblings have just been killed by bombs and their emotional exhaustion and grief. Thankfully, the documentary tries to add as many moments of human connection through what laughs and good times can possibly be mustered when fear is the main ingredient of daily life.
For an experience baring the ugliness of war, the constant fear and peril, and a humanistic story of raising one’s child during frightening times, For Sama (2019) also shows the love and dedication to one’s flesh and blood and the beauty of spirit and perseverance during tragic times. It is heartbreaking, humanistic, and inspiring.
Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature
Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary