Syrian film-maker Waad al-Kateab documents a city under siege in a war documentary which focuses on the effects far from the front line.
For Sama documents the uprising and subsequent siege of Aleppo. The film is made from the over 300 hours of footage captured by film maker Waad al-Kateab and spans from the start of the revolution in 2012 to the fall of Aleppo in 2016. The revolutionaries were spurred on by other movements in the Arab Spring and many of the protests were filmed on peoples’ phones. This is how al-Kateab began. She shouts to her friend Hamza as they head to a protest where he is serving as a first aider whilst filming on her mobile.
What is to follow in the rest of the program, is some of the most harrowing footage I’ve seen on TV. Waad moves on from her phone to her camera, she falls in love in Hamza and they have their daughter Sama. Throughout this time the violence of the Syrian government against their own intensifies. Many who can flee, leave Aleppo but Waad and Hamza stay. Hamza is running what will soon becoming the only hospital left in the city. At its worse the doctors perform 890 operations in one day with no running water.
Throughout their time in Aleppo, Waad’s footage was used by Channel 4 News for their Syrian coverage. However, this film, For Sama, provides us with a new perspective. Co-directed by Waad and Edward Watts, this narrative provides with an insight into the domestic side of war. What is it to live in a war zone? What is it to get married in a war zone? Or cook food with friends in a war zone? Or be a mother in a war zone? When we normally see reportage on the crisis in Syria we never see this side. The people effected become a monolith. This is not to disparage this kind of coverage, we definitely need it. However, it is an ode to the film medium, and Waad’s usage of it, that we can see our everyday lives simply transposed onto a war zone. Waad’s focus on the children of Aleppo and the families of her friends provides an insight into the wider impacts of war that we do not always see. This does make the political context more limited, but there are constant interjections that show the wider mechanisms at work. We are always aware that the air strikes are carried out by Russia. We also see Hamza carrying out an interview over Skype with an international news station, where he is cut off before he can explain the situation in Aleppo.
Of course, what interjects the familiar domesticity most dramatically, is the violence suffered by the besieged of Aleppo. The scenes in Hamza’s hospital are really hard to watch and times I had to look away. There is blood pooled on the floors, people lying everywhere and doctors frantically trying to manage it all. They do all this under the continual threat of being targeted by air strikes themselves. The chaos and claustrophobia and cruelty that this be inflicted upon anyone forces you to look away from the screen at times. Yet, this action, shows a problem with our response to Syria. If we can’t even look at it, how did we allow people to live through it.
Waad’s focus on children also captures their response to the tragedy. One of the most upsetting moments occurs when two brothers weep over the body of their sibling who has been killed by a bomb. The boys are around ten or eleven and such a profound emotion is jarring come from such small children. Waad also speaks to, Zain, the son of her friend. He is a similar age to the boys who lost their brother, maybe a bit younger. Stood on the family’s balcony, Waad captures the boy looking out at his city. He is crying because his friend’s family have just fled Aleppo, Zain says he’ll stay even if his family want to go. Again, the emotion feels so strong for a young child and he looks sorrowfully over his demolished homeland it is like he has become an old man already.
Zain encapsulates the fuel coursing through the film. There is a determination between those who stayed in Aleppo that they will not lose their homeland. Waad’s voiceover says “For such a long time we were sure we would win”. Aleppo represented a chance for a better future for Syria. Caught up in one city is their family, culture, history and hope for the future. The documentary shows how often places can be in the tangible sense of being where you make your roots but also come to have such symbolic importance. Although Waad and Hamza, as well as everyone else who remained until 2016, eventually had to leave their city as exiles, they still hope that one day they will be able to return to their homeland with their children.
For Sama, is a tough watch. A watch made even more tough knowing that the neighbouring city of Idlib is currently under attack in the same way. Yet, it is an important and beautifully edited and narrated piece that needs to reach as many people as possible.