For Sama


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

For Sama
"Al-Kateab and Watt capture not just the horror of war but the vibrancy of those attempting to carry on their lives as best they can against its backdrop." | Photo: Courtesy of Doc/Fest

"Sama, I made this film for you."

These words, spoken by filmmaker Waad al-Kateab near the beginning of her documentary (directed with Edward Watt), are addressed to her baby daughter, who was conceived and born in Aleppo during the intensifying bombardment of the city by the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. They set the tone for this deeply personal film, which has deservedly won a raft of accolades, including Best Documentary in Cannes and the Audience Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Some of al-Kateab's reportage rose to prominence on Channel 4 in 2016, in a series of Inside Aleppo films, but here the story of the conflict is fashioned into a first-person narrative, offering additional poignancy.

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Moving backwards and forwards to capture the start of the civil uprising in the city, in 2012, along with the subsequent fighting - and massacres - right up to the final evacuation, al-Kateab and Watt capture not just the horror of war but the vibrancy of those attempting to carry on their lives as best they can against its backdrop. Al-Kateab charts her romance with doctor Hamza, as they embark on their lives together and start a family, letting her story interweave with that of a city under siege and shelling.

The early days of protest, filled with optimism and youthful enthusiasm, feel like a coming of age married to a coming of war, as some of those people we are introduced to by the camera at the makeshift hospital Hamza is running, are killed almost immediately.

There have, of course, been a heartbreaking number of documentaries about the conflict in Syria, and, in particular, Aleppo, in recent years - including Last Men In Aleppo, Return To Homs and Cries From Syria, to name just a handful. The reason for this is, of course, the situation continues to be bleak and the very ongoing nature of the issue makes paying attention to films like this just as urgent as ever.

For Sama is marked out, however, not just by the personal, family angle that al-Kateab brings to the screen but also by her specifically female perspective. Women and children have been noticeable by their absence in some of the other documentaries, often seen only when they are dead or injured.

Here al-Kateab takes time to capture their lives just as fully as those of the men, recording several conversations with her friends' children about how they feel about the situation. In doing so, she documents the kids' perspective, from one pre-schooler's description of the Russian bombs as having "teeth", to the little boy who has cut-outs representing all of the friends who have fled the city, before adding that those who stayed are being killed one by one. Her first-person narration is also raw and honest, right down to admitting at one point that she wishes Sama had not been born.

This is, inevitably, a tough watch, with death and the potential for it rarely absent, but it is also a story of resilience and resistance that stands as testimony for all the parents who elected to stay in the city, not simply as an act of defiance, but for their children.

Reviewed on: 25 Jul 2019
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A young woman's struggles with love, war and motherhood over the span of five years in Syria.
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Director: Waad al-Khateab, Edward Watts

Year: 2019

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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