For Sama

by Toby Woollaston

Verdict: Probably the most courageous documentary you’ll see this year.

The horrors of civil war are explored in Waad Al-Kateab’s Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama. A Syrian journalist and reluctant hero, Waad recounts her tumultuous five years trapped within the besieged city of Aleppo along with her husband Hamza and their newborn daughter, Sama. They lived a meagre existence while working at a makeshift hospital during Assad’s brutal assault on the city.

Armed only with Waad’s handheld camera and Hamza’s surgical know-how (but both with an inspiring supply of courage), the couple do their best to save lives with limited resources. The film is a heart-breaking assault on your senses and doesn’t pull any punches as the seemingly endless conveyor-belt of wounded—civilian casualties of Assad’s unforgivably ill-targeted bombings—pass through the hospital doors.  Yet, behind the bloodshed For Sama presents itself as a love story on many levels; one of Waad and Hamza’s love for each other, also one of compassionate love for the city of Aleppo, but ultimately, as the title suggests, this film is Waad’s love letter to her daughter, Sama.

Waad explains how the plight of the rebels was muddied by an influx of Islamic extremists. However, the film wisely avoids getting too bogged down in the politics of war, rather, locking its attention on the plight of the innocent civilians at ground level, specifically the children caught up in the bombing. One heartbreaking scene in which two young boys softly weep over the body of their brother, a victim of yet another bomb, is particularly difficult to stomach. Such scenes, harrowing as they are, are necessary and serve to focus the film’s humanist concerns, as well as crystallise Waad and Hamza’s personal moral edict to stay and save lives rather than flee.

Never losing sight of the medium of film, Waad and her co-director Edward Watts have wrangled over 500 hours of hand-held footage and weaved it into a strong piece of cinema. The result is a profoundly intimate yet horrifically heartbreaking film—a powerful document of love and injustice that traverses an array of emotions. For Sama is essential viewing.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.