- Sophie Willard
- 9 September 2019
Powerful, Syria-set documentary combining horror and humanity
When, in 2012, Syrian citizen Waad al-Kateab filmed scenes of the early protests against President Bashar al-Assad's government on her mobile phone, it was to prove to the world that such protests were actually happening – despite official denials. Then a university student, al-Kateab went on to record the atrocities that the regime – aided by Russia – subsequently inflicted on its people, from her horrifyingly exposed position in East Aleppo.
Her extensive footage, taken across five years, forms a striking documentary that is intimate in nature and micro in scope. Co-directing with BAFTA-nominated British documentarian Edward Watts (Dispatches), al-Kateab has produced this film primarily, as she explains in her voiceover, for her daughter, Sama, whose first year was spent under perpetual bombardment in the rubble-strewn husk of the city.
Al-Kateab and her best friend and eventual husband, Hamza, set up a volunteer-run hospital, where Hamza, a doctor, worked tirelessly to save the many hundreds of strangers brought in, against a near-constant backdrop of heavy shelling. Waad's footage contains many horrors; the sight of two young boys crying over their dead brother and kissing his forehead is unforgettable. Yet she also captures incredible humanity and all-too-brief moments of small, personal victory.
A non-linear narrative occasionally hinders engagement, its timeline confusingly zig-zagging through the years, while one final-act scene is, oddly, edited for suspense – an unnecessarily flourish for a film in which such techniques feel cheap amidst so much real tragedy. Regardless, For Sama is a powerful testament to the resilient people of Aleppo, filled with in-the-moment fear-stricken testimonies, heart-breaking scenes of death, and scattered with camaraderie and the rare outbreak of resigned levity. This is urgent filmmaking at its very finest.
Selected release from Fri 13 Sep.