For Sama (5 stars)

For Sama

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.

For Sama

  • 2019
  • 1h 36min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts

An intimate and epic journey into the female experience of war.