There’s no adequate way to describe the first time you see your own child. It changes you, and it happens again every time you look at them.
In For Sama, Waad al-Kateab documents her life during the Syrian uprising in Aleppo and subsequent civil war and siege that found her, her doctor husband, Hazma, and their daughter, Sama, trapped in the city as their friends and family either escaped or perished all around them. Waad and her family lived in one of the few — and eventually only — hospitals in their area of Aleppo. She became a video documentarian, and her footage captures almost intolerably graphic footage of life inside the war. Intolerable is a choice word, written in comfort. Waad and her fellow Syrians had no choice, and rose to the occasion as heroically as they could. Throughout the film, Waad speaks directly to Sama, who she was never sure would survive to see the footage.
“Sama, you’re the most beautiful thing in our life. But what a life I have brought you into.”
Fantastic documentaries come out each year about the Syrian Civil War (City of Ghosts or Last Man in Aleppo, for example), in part because much of the experience or war is now live-streamed. For Sama exists in a realm all its own, from the perspective of a parent. Without al-Kateab’s efforts, it would be a uniquely challenging perspective to capture. It splices together bits of biography, footage of a young Sama and the horrors of war as seen in their hospital — most frequently the graphic deaths of innocent children, who have the least invested in the fighting of the war but who pay the price all the same. Children killed by airstrikes and gunshots. Their screaming parents, crying siblings and overwhelmed doctors trying to hold it together.
This description sounds extreme, and it is. Of course it is. It is war.
One sequence at the heart of the film is the most difficult few minutes I have ever seen in a film.
“Your only crime is your mom’s a journalist and your dad’s a doctor. Now I wish I hadn’t given birth to you.”
Once al-Kateab and her family escaped Aleppo, she partnered with British documentarian Edward Watts to compile her videos into the film version of For Sama. Her narration is heartbreaking and extraordinarily honest. It’s told in a somewhat non-linear fashion and is, amid the violence, somewhat difficult to follow. Had it been told day-to-day, it would have become unbearably grim. Which it already is. It has to be. This is the life she lived, and the life Sama lived.
Through it all, the hardest sequences are not created by editing two moments together but rather capturing evenings with Sama herself, sitting in their home and playing innocently with explosions in the background. Sama is unbothered. She doesn’t notice or process them as explosions. She doesn’t understand the politics, the revolution or the foreign powers who are using her home city as a weapons-testing ground. She doesn’t know.
For Sama is a unique experience that captures a perspective on conflict and war that is rarely so comprehensively depicted on such a raw, emotional level. It will change you.
For Sama is a Documentary Finalist at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
5 p.m., Sunday October 13 — DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
5:10 p.m., Friday, October 18 — AMC Castleton Square
3 p.m., Saturday, Oct 19 — AMC Castleton Square
4:30 p.m., Sunday, October 20 — The Toby at Newfields