How does one find the courage to stay in a besieged city when it means risking the life of one’s child?
One mother stayed in worn-torn Aleppo to capture the life of its civilians during President Bashar al-Asaad’s air strikes on the city in the 2010s, and turned the footage into a loving tribute to her daughter, Sama.
Witnessing ordinary people standing up for freedom by not fleeing, even when it means living with bombs falling all around them, is both inspiring and terrifying. “For Sama,” a documentary by 28-year-old Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, co-directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Edward Watts, is such a haunting yet hopeful and profoundly human testimonial.
Waad al-Kateab began filming life in Aleppo when she was a student protesting the Assad regime, then continued depicting intimate moments as she fell in love and married Hamza, a doctor and fellow activist. The film follows Waad and Hamza as they buy their first home and Waad gives birth to Sama.
Fighting began in Aleppo in 2011 between the Assad army and home-grown rebels. During a six-month siege in 2016 that led to the rebels’ defeat, Assad’s military and Russian planes bombed Aleppo daily, despite the Geneva Convention’s prohibition of the bombing of civilians.
Waad kept filming for five years to show the world the extent of the war crimes being committed.
Waad kept filming for five years to show the world the extent of the war crimes being committed, eventually shooting over 500 hours of footage, assembled and edited with the help of co-director Edward Watts into an extraordinary film.
Waad’s camera looks down at her feet or at her hands as she reaches out, making the audience feel at one with her. The viewer hears Waad speak to Sama, seen during the first few years of her life. The poetic voice-over by Waad that provides the film’s narration evokes a work of literature.
Waad shows baby Sama scenes of student protests that Waad participated in to explain her reasons for staying. Like great world leaders who risked their lives for freedom, Waad and Hamza fight to help others even as it means living with the cataclysmic sounds of bombs exploding nearby.
Sometimes the bombs hit where Waad is, falling on Hamza’s hospital in the film’s opening scene. Smoke fills the corridors. Medical personnel move patients to a different section of the hospital where they hope they will be safe. Surgeries continue without electricity. Waad, who has left Sama in someone else’s care, rushes frantically through the corridors until she finds her, unharmed.
When living under such harrowing conditions, camaraderie helps the trapped souls get through the day. Waad and Hamza befriend a couple who have three children but choose to stay in Aleppo too, to set an example for their children. Humor helps, something that comes naturally to Hamza, who manages to smile occasionally despite the sight of civilians —including babies and children—streaming into his hospital on stretchers or in the arms of panicked rescuers, sometimes carrying their own family members.
The people of Aleppo try to lead normal lives, though nothing is “normal” and everything is distorted in aberrant surroundings.
The people of Aleppo try to lead normal lives, though nothing is “normal” and everything is distorted in aberrant surroundings. Children’s play consists of painting a burnt-out bus or swimming in huge water-filled craters carved in the streets by cluster bombs. Civilians burn tires, creating black clouds to prevent pilots from seeing their targets. To minimize casualties, a loudspeaker instructs civilians to disperse and seek shelter when a bomb hits.
Dead and injured children expose the full atrocities of war. Two young brothers grieve outside a hospital room where the corpse of a third brother lays, last seen by them through a window, playing outside. A boy crying over a friend who left Aleppo—one of many friends who left or died, says he does not want to leave, even if his parents do—even if he will have no one to care for him, there’s no place like home.
“Children have nothing to do with this, nothing,” says a male hospital attendant, close to tears.
The film is harsh and unsparing in its depiction of the casualties of war.
The film is harsh and unsparing in its depiction of the casualties of war. Blood covers the hospital floor. Babies, children, and adults—often burned and/or bleeding with other grievous injuries—pour into the hospital after bombings.
Hamza opens Aleppo’s last standing hospital after the last hospital he ran, shown in the film’s opening scene, was destroyed. Sandbags outside the windows protect the new hospital, picked because it isn’t on any map. During the worst days of the six-month siege, Hamza’s team scurries to receive and treat 300 patients a day.
Waad, Hamza, and Sama live in the hospital. At one point, staff and patients must wear masks after it becomes evident that the latest patients to arrive, including children, have been attacked with chlorine gas.
In a particularly heartbreaking scene, doctors give an emergency Cesarean section to an injured, nine-month-pregnant woman who survives, although her baby’s body appears lifeless. A doctor presses repeatedly against the infant’s chest using only his thumbs. Then a nurse vigorously rubs the length of the baby’s body, followed by the requisite whacking. The baby’s eyes pop open. A wail erupts from its tiny mouth. New life affirms all life.
Near the end of the film, rebel fighting squeezes the community into an area of only a few square kilometers. It becomes hard to get supplies and find fruits and vegetables. Water is cut off, then electricity. Many civilians flee. Between filming and providing medical care, there is little time for Sama’s parents to spend time with her.
Through United Nations channels, the Russians tell any civilians still in Aleppo to leave or perish. Hamza tells Waad that the end is near. They remain to see the wounded get out. Miraculously—this is a film about miracles born from courage—Waad, Hamza, and Sama get past a checkpoint in their car.
“For Sama” has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
“For Sama” has won over 50 awards worldwide, including L’Oeil d’Or for Best Documentary at Cannes 2019, Best Feature at the International Documentary Association Awards 2019, Best Documentary at the European Film Awards 2019, and Best British Independent Film, Best Director, Best Documentary, and Best Editing at the BIFAs 2019. Finally, this month, “For Sama” has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Inside Arabia spoke with Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts over the phone. When asked why they risk their lives to expose injustice, Waad said she honors friends who lost their lives by telling the world about their sacrifice so that it does not go unrecognized.
Edward, on the other hand, said he was grateful for the advantages life has handed him and therefore felt a duty to help those not as lucky. Both of them hope that many people around the world see “For Sama” and are compelled to speak out against the bombings of civilians.
Some of Edward Watts’ other films, available for free on edwardwattsfilms.com, are also about people risking their lives to help others.
“For Sama” is on PBS Frontline and can be viewed on pbs.org and in selected theaters.