I watched For Sama (2019) on All 4, knowing only that it was an Oscar-nominated film about the Syrian conflict, dedicated to the baby daughter of the journalist and film maker Waad al-Kateab (and co-directed by Edward Watts). I expected it to be harrowing, but I was unprepared for how gripping and powerful the film would be. I was immediately hooked, and although I started watching it late at night I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop it half-way and start again the next day. I had to know how things were going to work out for Waad al-Kateab, her husband Hamza, their child Sama, Hamza’s hospital, their friends and their families.
I have been moved by fictionalised depictions of life in war-torn countries, but watching Waad, a beautiful, intelligent woman with everything ahead of her, move with Hamza from being optimistic, energetic, politically engaged, happy students to astonishingly committed, fun but intensely serious, breath-takingly courageous, traumatised and most of all kind war veterans was genuinely humbling.
As Waad’s narration informs us, she starts making the film in order to demonstrate to Sama why her parents made the decisions they did: the decision to take on the Assad regime, and their decision to remain in Aleppo during the long siege of that city, even returning after a trip to safety in Turkey to visit Hamza’s sick grandfather. And at every step of the way they have no idea if they will survive, or if their child will survive.
First they are shown, before they’re a couple, taking part in peaceful demonstrations at Aleppo University, in which Muslims and Christians came together to express their dissatisfaction with the Assad regime. Hamza was already married, but was a close friend of Waad, who describes him as having a constant smile on his face, while she tells us that she was considered to be a headstrong teenager by her parents.
However, we already know events are not going lead towards any straightforward happy ending. The response of the regime rapidly intensifies, until we are shown, in January 2013, the corpses of tens of massacred young men, handcuffed, with bullets through their heads. The footage does not shy away from the horror of these images, or the devastating grief of their families.
Hamza’s wife understandably wants to flee the escalating conflict, but for him, a committed political activist, this represents an impossible choice. He chooses to remain in Aleppo, where Hamza and his friends decide to set up a much-needed hospital, filmed and supported by Waad.
And so an intimate portrait unfolds of a relationship and a war. We see Waad and Hamza fall in love, get married, and find their dream home. They tend to their plants, and Waad becomes pregnant.
But then friends begin to be killed, the hospital is bombed, and the film is littered with the senseless violent deaths of children. As one horror-struck medic says: “Children have nothing to do with this, nothing.” Waad interviews the children of friends, who sometimes seem bewilderingly carefree, playing among bombed-out vehicles, but at other times are stricken, with an utterly unchildlike awareness and passive acceptance of the worst depths of human experience.
And all the way through Waad questions her choices, and those of her husband. Were they right to stay in Aleppo in order to document the siege and provide desperately-needed medical care, when that has meant risking their lives every minute of every day, and risking the life of their infant child, who is so inured to the sound of bombs strafing the city that she doesn’t cry, doesn’t even jump.
This warm-hearted, intensely intimate and deeply humane documentary should really become required viewing for all.