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Review: For Sama

Amber Haslam reviews an unflinching portrait of the horrors of warfare through one woman's letter to her daughter

It is 2016, in Aleppo, Syria, and Waad al-Kateab is filming the world that unfolds around her, with a handheld film camera. This world is one of relentless airstrikes, of destroyed buildings and homes, of death, fear and suffering on a scale so extensive that it is difficult to comprehend. What she captures is a nothing short of a horror film – yet one which is undeniably real.

For Sama is a documentary film about the Syrian War which began in 2011, sparked by the Arab Spring protests, and became the battle between Assad’s ruthless, Russian-backed regime and Syrians fighting for their freedom. It is a personal story of one woman’s journey of growing up, getting married and having a child during the conflict.  

At eighteen Waad moved to Aleppo to study at the city’s university and met her husband Hamza. Unrest escalated and together they went to the protests; Hamza to help the injured as a doctor, Waad with her camera. This became their life and mission, and where the story starts. Years later, at the end of 2016, eight out of nine of Aleppo’s hospitals had been destroyed as the conflict intensified. The hospital Hamza set up was the only one left, as Assad bombed most of the city to submission and targeted hospitals, squeezing the rebels into a smaller and smaller pocket of Aleppo.  

Waad documents all of this, with scenes from the hospital that are so horrific and tragic it is difficult to watch. The floors are smeared in blood, injured and dead bodies are everywhere, the sound of screaming is drowned out by that of falling bombs and explosions. And all the while she is recording. At one point a woman runs to her, screaming desperately, asking “are you filming?”. For a second it seems that she is questioning her choice, perplexed as to why she would film in such a crisis. But she is angry; she tells Waad to film this, to tell them to help us. And this is what For Sama is: a cry of protest telling the world to look and to notice the suffering of Syria.  

It is also a dedication to her daughter, who was born into the conflict; born into war but also into so much love. She films so that Sama will see the city that is their home, and the freedom and humanity that her parents fought for. Yet in her voiceover she wonders whether Sama will forgive her for bringing her into this world. It is a heart-breakingly understandable question. 

For Sama is not just a film about the Syrian War. It is not just about death, but about life. You see friends laughing together as bombs fall around them, you see a doctor working tirelessly to counteract the violence inflicted on those around him, you see deep love between Waad and Hamza, and for their daughter. In just under two hours you feel both physical sickness at the reality of the evil and violence that we are capable of as humans, and a swell of warmth and hope because of their courage and compassion. It is a complete juxtaposition. What Waad has captured is a reflection of humanity itself; it exposes all that we are, in the truest light. 

As a piece of film documentary, regardless of any context, it is impressive and gripping. Waad films instinctively and intuitively, piecing together a real story of the Syrian conflict that has not been cut to fit our perspective and framework of news headlines or articles. However, the state of the world that it has been released into is what makes this documentary so powerful. The context of 2016 and now the context of 2020 makes it perhaps the most important and relevant film you will ever see.  

It is horrifying and deeply distressing, but it is also so inspiring; it is a film about hope in the darkest of times, and fighting for humanity and against oppression. And it urges all of those watching to do the same. Because Syria is still gripped by war. Idlib is now facing the same monstrosity that Aleppo did in 2016, and the world still looks away. But For Sama changes this: it turns our gaze towards what we need to see.  

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