'For Sama': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Waad al-Kateab
A harrowing first-person account of love and war.

Directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts premiered their debut feature in South by Southwest before it airs on Frontline later this year.

Among the many activists who have documented the civil war in Syria, the story of 26-year-old Waad al-Kateab is perhaps one of the most remarkable.

A mere student when the conflict began to sweep through Aleppo in 2012, al-Kateab would, four years later, become one of the last survivors to leave the city before it fell to Bashar al-Assad’s forces in December of 2016. By that time, she was married to a heroic doctor and was the mother of a young girl, with another child on the way. And she was already renowned, especially in the U.K., for her harrowing video reportages — originally published on her Inside Aleppo website — of a city besieged by constant bombings and artillery fire, with the victims counting in the tens of thousands.

In For Sama, al-Kateab and co-director Edward Watts have fashioned a feature-length letter to the activist’s first daughter, who was born in January 2016 during the height of the conflict. Revisiting some of the events that marked Aleppo’s final year under siege, as well as those that led up to them, the film offers up a rare firsthand account of war from a strictly female perspective, focusing on how conflict affects families, and, especially, the hundreds of innocent victims that are children.

“I’m not sure I can handle it,” al-Kateab confesses at one point, though throughout For Sama we witness how fearless she remains in the face of so much carnage, keeping her camera rolling despite the horrors being recorded. Viewers with weak stomachs or hearts may have a hard time with some of the more brutal footage, including the many images of dead children, but al-Kateab clearly sees the act of filming as one of resistance, documenting the atrocities committed by Assad’s Russian-backed army on the civilians of Aleppo. After premiering in competition in South by Southwest, where it scooped up the best documentary prize, the film will be released theatrically over the summer and broadcast domestically on PBS’ Frontline at the end of the year.

Flashing back-and-forth between 2016 and the years beforehand, For Sama provides an intimate look at a young woman who fell in love in a place that was soon headed for total destruction. Her future husband, Hamza, was just a medical student when the crisis started. Along with their fellow classmates the two joined the raucous mass protests, which were sparked by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and other countries, with the goal of reversing the Assad dictatorship that had ruled Syria continuously since 1971.

When the protests transformed into an all-out civil war, Hamza chose to stay behind and create a makeshift hospital serving the wounded in his city. At his side was al-Kateab, to whom he soon proposed, and who decided to pick up her camera and document what was happening, filming inside the clinic’s blood-soaked operating and waiting rooms, as well as on the surrounding streets and in their own home.

The result is a series of deeply powerful images showing the human casualties of a war that most of us witnessed from our TV sets or computer screens, but that al-Kateab and her husband lived on a daily basis for many years. Two scenes among several stand out: One shows the doctor conducting a C-section to remove a seemingly dead baby from its wounded mother’s womb, only to astonishingly bring the infant back to life with his bare hands. The other shows two young boys watching helplessly as their little brother is unable to be resuscitated after a bombing. “He was just outside the house,…” one of them says in shock, his face still caked with dust from the explosion.

While all this is happening, Waad and Hamza try to live something akin to a normal life. They get married, dancing to Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” at their wedding. They move into a new house, until that house gets bombed. And they have their first child, Sama, who grows up in a room with sandbag-protected windows to prevent debris from killing her. “You never cry like a normal baby would,” al-Kateab remarks later on, fearing how a child raised in a city under siege will turn out. (Another startling scene shows a boy, no older than 10, barely flinching as bombs burst in the distance.)

By the time the Russian air strikes and assaults from Syrian forces destroy most of the city in late 2016, including eight out of the nine hospitals in East Aleppo, Hamza’s crumbling establishment is all that’s left for the remaining victims. In the end the place is steeped in chaos, with wounded bodies resting, and dying, on blood-smeared floors as a few doctors and nurses scramble to do what they can. And then it’s time for them to leave as well.

Given the danger the couple face on a day-to-day basis, and the danger they place their child in after she’s born — a late scene, which could be taken out of an action movie, shows the family of three sneaking back into Aleppo under constant gunfire — one constantly wonders why they didn’t flee the country like countless others who sought safety abroad. Isn’t it useless to risk everyone’s life to such an extent, especially in a long, losing battle that was the Syrian Civil War?

But after watching the arresting images that al-Kateab captures, and the courageous actions of Hamza and his team, it becomes clear that what they did, they also did for Sama — a little girl born into war whose miraculous survival is yet another act of resistance.  

Production companies: ITN Productions, Channel 4, Channel 4 News, Frontline, PBS Distribution
Directors: Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
Producer: Waad al-Kateab
Executive producers: Ben de Pear, Nevine Mabro, Siobhan Sinnerton, George Waldrum, Raney Aronson-Rath
Director of photography: Waad al-Kateab
Editors: Chloe Lambourne, Simon McMahon
Composer: Nainita Desai

Venue: SXSW (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: PBS

In Arabic
93 minutes