Director: Waad Al-Khateab, Edward Watts
Runtime: 100 minutes
Framed as a letter to her daughter, Waad al-Kateab’s For Sama depicts human dignity in the midst of the horrors of war using her own footage from a besieged Aleppo. The almost two-hour documentary traces the arc of Waad, a journalist, and Hamza, a doctor, as they struggle with impossible decisions of how much to put themselves—and baby Sama—in harm’s way as they respond to the violence around them. It’s a powerful gut-punch of a film, so graphic that it can be hard to watch (and certainly not appropriate for children. This is a wrenching, grisly film about the human cost of warfare in Syria). As they work within a sandbag-lined hospital helping wounded Syrians, airstrikes constantly disrupt their work and Assad’s regime closes in around them. It puts the viewer on edge, and the hospital’s claustrophobic anxiety spills out from the screen. And that’s the point: more than offering historical information or political talking points, Waad wants you to see and feel what it’s like for innocent people to navigate the consequences of warfare on the ground—and she doesn’t look away.
Scene after scene she brings the camera into the hospital and around the streets. She witnesses lines of body bags, wailing mothers, shell-shocked children carrying dead siblings down the hospital hallways. “In Aleppo, there’s no time to grieve,” she says. A few drone shots throughout the film feel like coming up for air, reminding viewers of sanitized news-clips before plunging back into the dust and rubble of the city where people try to survive. Is the violence too much to watch? Just asking the question feels like an indictment since, of course, this violence really happened. This isn’t Children of Men or the Gears of War video game—this is first person footage from the Syrian War. It is very hard to watch, and I have to tell you I couldn’t watch all of it (especially scenes with wounded children and an extended c-section). I don’t have Waad’s courage.
But this isn’t violence for entertainment nor is it violence used to guilt viewers into action. Waad is only interested in showing you what she witnesses, and all the brutality operates as a setting for human dignity. In the midst of airstrikes, they plant gardens, help children paint bombed out buses, dance in living rooms, and even clutch a single persimmon like a precious jewel. Saying these moments are “humanizing” feels utterly inadequate; this film is not offering an easy inspirational message. For Sama gives equal time to human dignity and the violence that threatens to extinguish it. “Look, look! Use your eyes!” A student says to the camera and, implicitly, to the viewer.
This unresolved contrast between violence and dignity is what gives this film its power. Waad shows you all of it: the dust and blood-soaked city (“Even when I close my eyes, I see the color red. Blood, everywhere. On walls, floors, our clothes.”), and yes, somehow, even laughter and singing and children playing. It’s dumbfounding to watch, and it can rightly provoke us to silence and even prick our consciences to learn more about a war most Americans have had the privilege of ignoring.
“Sama I’ve made this film for you,” she says. “I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did. What we were fighting for.” We watch the film with Sama, more determined than ever to join them in building a more peaceful world.
For Sama won the award for Best Documentary at SXSW, as well as the Audience Award. It opens in select theaters July 26.
Written by Michael Wright