“For Sama” is a difficult film to watch. When the warning flashed by at the beginning regarding graphic images, I thought I knew exactly what to prepare myself for. After all, I’ve seen my share of war documentaries.
I was wrong.
This is not your average war documentary. It reveals images you wouldn’t expect, stories you wouldn’t have considered, and a closing that passes a bit of the creator’s heart on to you.
It is the work of a mother.
In the last few years, there has been a lot of hype around the rise of female directors, and a renewed (or just plain new) appreciation for the unique perspectives that women can bring to film. We have been blessed with the talent and vision of many women directors this year in particular. But never have I seen a project like this where the creator’s womanhood defines the entire film, without ever feeling like a “girl” documentary. This is not a documentary for girls. It is a documentary for humanity.
“For Sama” begins when Waad al-Khateab, a university student in Aleppo, starts filming fellow students protesting the regime of Bashar-al-Assad whose government failed to implement promised reforms. What begins as peaceful protests soon escalates into armed conflict. Waad moves into the safety of the nearby hospital where she continues to film the unfolding events. We get an insider’s look at the medical professionals working desperately to save civilians being shelled by the regime. In the midst of the violence and horror, Waad falls in love with a doctor, gets married, and becomes pregnant. This marks a pivotal moment in her filming, when she decides that this reality she is living will be recorded for her child and the future generations. This was the moment that turns Waad’s documentary into a letter to her child, sharing memories of their beloved Aleppo, painting the pictures of the people they loved, and explaining why they made the decisions they made.
Waad gives birth at her husband’s hospital in the middle of a bomb zone. The brave couple name their daughter Sama.
Waad al-Kateab, right, her husband Hamza, left, and their daughter Sama. The family is at the centre of the documentary For Sama, directed by al-Kateab and London's Edward Watts. (For Sama/ITN Production). All rights reserved.
Watching Sama grow up within a war zone is revealing, though difficult. Even safely behind our screen, we flinch when we hear the echo of a bomb while Sama is playing in her room. We laugh at her goofy antics. We close our eyes in pain to see her innocently playing in one corner of the emergency room while someone else’s child lies dead in the other. We worry about her development when the food supply begins to dwindle. We weep when children who might have been her babysitters are dragged in from the wreckage of exploded homes, fighting for their lives. We smile at the hope and morale little Sama brings to the medical team at the hospital. And we sigh with relieved sorrow when Sama finally finds safety in the midst of the rubble of their once beautiful home. We experience all of this through the eyes of her mother.
“For Sama” is a completely unique exploration of the reality of war from the inside. It makes you laugh and cry. It makes you cheer and it makes you want to scream. It makes you understand your own life differently. This is no sterile documentary. It is a film with heart. And as heart wrenching as it is, it is also a film of hope. It’s in this balance of pain and hope, violence and tenderness, death and life, determination and acceptance, sorrow and joy that we realize why we need more women making films. It’s not because men don’t make amazing, important films, because they do! Rather, it is because we have been missing the vision of womanhood, and of motherhood, and thus our ability to look upon the world as a human family has been missing the voice of the very figure we rely on for our most basic nurturance and formation.
Waad al-Kateab and her daughter Sama. For Sama, directed by al-Kateab and London's Edward Watts. (For Sama/ITN Production). All rights reserved.
“For Sama” brings this formative voice of a mother to war documentaries. And by the end of the film, we discover ourselves to be all the more human because of it.
“For Sama” has won 26 awards across the globe, including a BAFTA Award for Best Documentary, 2020; Riverrun International Film Festival: Best Cinematography-Documentary Feature, 2019; Official Selection Festival de Cannes – Prix L’Oeil d’Or for Best Documentary, 2019. It is a difficult film to watch, but it is also a powerful one. If you can stomach war films, it’s one you won’t want to pass up. Available on YouTube movies.