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For Sama: A heartbreaking female perspective on Syria's civil war


directed by Waad al-Kateab

Syrian journalist Waad al-Kateab's documentary on the birth of her daughter amid the violence of war is compulsory viewing.

The opening shots reveal a baby, her mother behind the camera cooing her name: “Sama”. The film is being made to explain why Sama’s parents would choose to bring her into a world of airstrikes and bloodshed. “Can you ever forgive me?” the mother asks, just as a blast rocks the hospital room that has been their refuge and it is plunged into darkness.

This Oscar-nominated documentary opens an intimate and harrowing window into the daily life of the people of Aleppo – granting us, a Western audience safely tucked away on the other side of the world, extraordinary access to something usually only seen on the news.

Journalist Waad al-Kateab (an alias used by the Syrian-raised, now UK-based, film-maker in order to protect her family) shot footage over several years, chronicling the horrors of what began as civil war in 2011 and rapidly descended into an inescapable hell. From peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad and his brutal regime, a revolution was born and al-Kateab, her doctor husband and a team of dedicated civilians choose to stay in Aleppo, building a makeshift hospital to serve the hundreds of casualties brought in each day.

This film is a hard watch, and there are scenes that every viewer will find heavy going. Moments are utterly devastating, but not a single shot is gratuitous. Remarkably for a documentary, the restrained soundtrack stops well short of emotional manipulation. We may be used to scenes of blood-stained floors and dust-covered children sobbing, but al-Kateab shows us the bigger picture of a life punctuated by violence: wedding music is turned up to drown out an airstrike; her overjoyed friend receives a persimmon from her husband; executed torture victims are pulled from a river and laid out in body bags.

For Sama places the film-maker and her family at the centre of the drama, but it is also the biography of a city as well as a love story to a daughter, a husband and a country. Undeniably powerful, it achieves the most important aspiration of a documentary maker – it’s compulsory viewing.



Video: Umbrella Entertainment

This article was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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