Directors: Waad al-Kataeb and Edward Watts
100 mins, 2019
I have often wondered, watching on the news as one Syrian town after another gets bombed to smithereens, why do civilians stay? How can they? I remember asking that question three years ago, at the end of 2016, as the news showed us the very last civilians in eastern Aleppo climbing on to buses and leaving behind the city that had been turned to rubble by their own president. Waad al-Kataeb’s documentary For Sama provides some kind of answer to that question.
For six months eastern Aleppo was under aerial attack by President Bashar Al-Assad and his Russian helpers. The film starts with the hospital plunged into darkness as bombs start falling; everyone rushes for the safety of the basement; someone’s calling, ‘Sama! Where’s Sama? Who’s got Sama?’ Sama is a few months old; someone’s got her safe; the woman calling is her mother, the filmmaker Waad al-Kataeb. Down in the basement Sama’s father Hamza uses his surgical mask to play a peekaboo game with his daughter and makes her laugh.
Personal and political history unfold in flashbacks: al-Kataeb leaves home to go to Aleppo University to study economics; she meets medical student Hamza; she films student protests against the corruption of the Assad regime; there’s a lot of laughter and joking; she and Hamza get together and she becomes pregnant.
‘The Islamic extremists were trying to take us over,’ says al-Kataeb at one point; ‘president Assad was trying to kill us.’ They are holed up in eastern Aleppo, where Hamza (a qualified doctor by now) and his friends and colleagues are running a hospital that deals increasingly with civilians wounded by bombardment. Children know the names of the different kinds of bombs and shells. A five-year-old talks of cluster bombs.
Waad al-Kataeb shows us heartbreaking scenes of dead children and weeping parents. She also shows us other families, singing, laughter, the flowers growing in the back yard of the house she loves. The people she films want us to bear witness to their grief, and to their anger, and to their determination. Assad targets the hospital: fifty-three people are killed and the building destroyed. Hamza finds another building.
Why did I give birth to Sama? Al-Kataeb asks again and again. Why did we choose to stay here? She is lacerated with doubt. And at the end they have to go, leaving behind everything for which they have sacrificed so much.
This documentary explains to Sama (whose name means ‘sky’), and to us, why al-Kataeb and her husband chose to do what they did. It is a powerful life-affirming hymn to resilience and resistance.