Rhys Handley Sheffield Doc/Fest

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019: For Sama review

★★★★★

Waad al-Kateab moved to Aleppo, Syria, at the age of 18 to go to university. She fell in love with a doctor, they had a child and moved into a house they lovingly made their own. The house today is barely left standing, as the devastating airstrikes on her city have forced al-Kateab and her family from their home and reduced it to rubble.

For Sama is a stunning feat of subjective journalism. Distilled into 96 tight, exhausting minutes from more than 500 hours of footage recorded on the ground in Aleppo by al-Kateab, this is a view of the brutal Syrian conflict through the eyes of one woman.

It is framed delicately as a visual letter to al-Kateab’s infant daughter Sama, who is born in Aleppo when the death and destruction is at its zenith. It is a desperate and loving justification for the new mother’s decision to forego escape and continue eking out a life in the epicentre of a warzone.

Along with her husband Hamza, al-Kateab spends five years in the city, refusing to bow to external pressure from the Assad regime and later from a Russian military onslaught. Hamza takes charge of a rudimentary war hospital to care for the innocent Syrians caught up in the chaos and grants his wife and her video camera unprecedented access to its wards.

The images al-Kateab captures are indisputably horrific and will stay with viewers for the rest of their lives – both the gore of the injured and dead strewn through the hospital’s halls and the traumatic displays of grief from family and friends delivering their loved ones to Hamza’s care. It is to al-Kateab’s credit that her eye does not waver in the face of these images – the camera holds steady and coolly observes, laying bare the undeniable truth that a campaign mounted, according to Russian propaganda, to stem the proliferation of terrorism is in truth irreparably damaging or ending the lives of innocent human beings.

Affecting and never cloying, al-Kateab’s film looks to Sama herself as a touchstone – an innocent and curious baby girl whose eyes carry as wisdom and awareness far beyond her years. The pain al-Kateab feels as she keeps her daughter in harm’s way in order to fulfil her insurmountable mission positively throbs from every affectionate shot of this pure, unburdened child.

Eventually, during the surrender of Aleppo, the family escaped and now lives, one baby bigger, in East London, with Hamza and Waab still working tirelessly to raise awareness of the atrocities subjected on the citizens of Syria today. For Sama, produced in collaboration with Channel 4 editor Edward Watts, makes concrete an idea that many Westerners continue to regard from a cold distance, or obscure in the abstract.

For Sama is a clarion call to the ignorant West and a testament to the sustaining power of unconditional love in the face of absolute horror. It is terrible to witness and absolutely essential viewing for all.

Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 6-11 June. To see the full programme and to buy tickets visit sheffdocfest.com.

Rhys Handley | @RhysHandley2113