REVIEW: For Sama [2019]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½


Rating: TV-PG | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: September 13th, 2019 (UK)
Studio: PBS
Director(s): Waad al-Kateab & Edward Watts

“I don’t regret anything”

After five years of footage depicting the rapid decline in Aleppo as college protests turn to rebellion with a dictatorial regime finding friends in Russia to decimate innocent civilians it intentionally refuses to differentiate from soldiers and extremists, Waad al-Kateab realizes that the snippets she’s uploaded to expose these atrocities to the world on YouTube are just as important for Syrians to remember what was and what happened. It’s about the uncertainty of whether you’ll see another day. The futility of watching friends and loved ones breathe their last breath. And the tragic circumstances that allow for a toddler to become unfazed by the bombs and gunfire erupting outside his/her window. But it’s also evidence that these heroes never give up hope despite facing their mortality.

I think what stuck with me most in al-Kateab and Edward Watts‘ documentary For Sama are those scenes where an explosion causes an adult to jump while their children simply carry on as if nothing happened. They were born into this war. It’s all they’ve ever known. And it hardens and matures them to the point where a six-year old is bad-mouthing friends for abandoning their home (and him). The parents still have memories of peace in the back of their minds to prevent them from becoming numb to this nightmare because they must believe a return remains possible. They must embrace fear and its subsequent defense mechanism in order to survive because it also keeps them human. Tears become a reminder that life still matters.

That’s the difference between what al-Kateab sent out from the ground and what this movie delivers in the aftermath. Back then it was about the dead telling a story that the Assad government censored. Now it’s about the living: those who survived to both speak and listen alongside those who fought with everything they had before succumbing to an inevitable, random blast. This is why she narrates the entire journey to a daughter (Sama) who can’t yet understand the words beyond her recognition that they’ve arrived in her mother’s voice. Because while Assad may believe he achieved victory by pushing out the survivors with a deadly ultimatum, they haven’t been defeated. The spirit that’s alive in every frame al-Kateab shot burns brighter with each new viewer.

Think of the film as an extension of her husband Hamza‘s hospital. One of the few doctors who chose to stay and help the fallen, he created a safe haven (as safe as anything could be in Aleppo) for those who weren’t ready to give up on the dream of a free Syria. People flocked to help as nurses, orderlies, and maintenance workers. They gave up opportunities to escape so they could do their part in accordance with their hearts. Those walls protected them as a psychological barrier with which to find moments to smile and laugh despite what was happening and as a physical impediment to the carnage right outside. Hamza created a symbol and now Waad does the same so nobody seen on-screen will be forgotten.

It doesn’t get more powerful than that since we never know if a person on-camera will be alive during the next scene. We meet families, children, and grieving victims as blood pools atop the hospital floor and bodies pile higher. But al-Kateab never stops filming. She’ll leave Sama sleeping in her bed or ask someone to watch her when something crucial occurs because no footage of what they endure can be sacrificed. The fearless courage necessary to do so stems from this little girl too since she’s evidence of a love that won’t be extinguished. Sama’s mere existence gives purpose to help save their homeland for her future. Maybe they should have sent her to Turkey to be safe. Or maybe her presence is what kept them alive.

For Sama is uncompromising in portraying this duality as fate forever intervenes at opportune moments. The pious among us can say God’s will keeps this family breathing when places they just were or are going to now explode in their absence. The same can be said when the chance to leave arrives with a caveat that Waad and Hamza are two of the most dangerous opposition figures to Assad still residing in Syria. Who can they trust then? For five years they’ve watched their city’s decimation at the hands of ruthless totalitarians while the world simply turned the channel. They watched as the unthinkable happened again and again knowing they were all alone—that they had to make this last stand themselves no matter the consequences.

That context is important in explaining why the al-Kateabs kept Sama at ground zero. At the end of the day, Waad and Hamza looked at each other and acknowledged the duty they had to use their talents and tenacity to save lives at what might prove the cost of their own. There are no guarantees that these two will make it out alive. It’s a miracle if they do. So this film might be all Sama has to learn about her parents and what they stood for and accomplished beyond the lies and misinformation Syria and Russia have fed the international community instead. Their actions may end up being all that’s left of what Aleppo was. That’s what Waad preserved. That’s Sama’s inheritance and her promise.

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