For Sama, directed by Waada al Kateab and Edward Watts, is probably one of the most difficult and emotionally jarring documentary movies you will watch. With footage from over a five year period, mostly from the hand held camera of photo journalist al Kateab, it depicts the horrors of living through the siege of Aleppo Syria and the bravery of those who chose to stay and help their neighbours.
Al Kateab takes us from the first heady days of the people’s uprising against the cruel tyranny of Assad through to her finally accepting the inevitable and fleeing the city with her husband Hamza and infant daughter, Sama. Her daughter was born amidst the suffering of the Aleppo, and in some ways this movie is an explanation, and an apology, to Sama.
In her narration al Kateab says from the onset that she put together the film in the hopes it will show her daughter why she and her husband chose to stay in Aleppo. Even choosing to return from Turkey when they had made it out once to visit his family. At first it was for the sense of hope, that they could defeat Assad. Then it was the feeling they couldn’t abandon their life and what they were attempting to build.
Even when the resistance was hijacked by what al Kateab refers to as “Islamists”, they stay out of an obligation to helping those injured in the bombardment. Hamza, was a doctor and had helped set up the only hospital in East Aleppo. Here they treated the sick and wounded as best they could. When the hospital was bombed by the Russians, they found a new location and kept treating people.
While the footage, which is cobbled together from what al Kateab took, security cameras and news crews, of the conflict and the toll it took on Aleppo, what makes For Sama so powerful is its point of view. Unlike most “war movies” For Sama is a record of people doing their best to continue a normal existence for themselves and their children.
In the midst of a war we watch as al Kateab falls in love, marries and then becomes pregnant with Sama. We can’t help but admire not only her spirit, but the spirit and bravery of all those around her. Which of course makes it all the more heartbreaking as we learn how many of these wonderful smiling people didn’t survive the siege.
al Kateab made For Sama as a record and an explanation for her daughter. She wanted to tell her why they did what they did; about their hopes and dreams for a better Syria and why they didn’t feel like they could abandon the people of Aleppo.
While For Sama might be addressed to al Kateab’s daughter, the reality is its message is one the whole world should hear. It takes us behind the headlines and propaganda of all sides. As in so many countries throughout the Arab world, Syrians were tired of living under dictators. The Assad family had ruled the country with an iron fist, and people had had enough.
So we see the initial gleeful demonstrations in the streets as the people of Aleppo strive for freedom. However, we then see the how the government reprises against them as the bodies of the disappeared show up in the river.
Highly personal, but universal in scope and feel, For Sama takes us into the reality of Aleppo under siege and we grieve and laugh with the families living through it. Horrifying in places, and heartbreaking in others, this is what the people of Syria have had to live with for years.
Anyone who still doesn’t understand why these people have fled their homes in the millions needs to see this movie. They don’t have a home to go back to, and we did nothing to prevent it from happening.