Film Review: For Sama


Waad al-Kateab was a student at the University of Aleppo as the first anti-Assad demonstrations broke out in her city. As the protests grow and the uprising is met with increasing violence from Government forces, al-Kateab documents her involvement in the city under siege, filming her marriage to medical student Hamza and the birth of her daughter, Sama.

From five years-worth of footage, al-Kateab constructs a narrative of astonishing humanity, clarity and urgency, capturing a global outrage from the perspective of the human and individual. At its centre is optimism for the coming liberation, that gradually morphs into an understanding of the true cost of resistance. Yet her and the city’s resilience persists even in the face of defeat; she is never fully disabused of the optimism that drove her to resist in the beginning.

The resilience of For Sama’s subjects in the face of death is never less than astounding, even as the bombs are literally raining down among them. The film’s many sequences involving the victims of air raids are surely among the most harrowing ever shown in a documentary, the camera forcing us to look at the conflict’s horrifying consequences – including children killed by the Russian-sponsored attacks on the city.

Even among the unspeakable horror there remains hope. A woman knocked unconscious and brought to the hospital that Hamza helped set up goes into labour and the team perform an emergency cesarean; the endless, horrible moments that follow as the doctor tries to revive the unresponsive baby are beyond unbearable, yet we hang on to the slimmest chance that it could survive. It could be said that the hope for Aleppo rests solely on the fate of this newborn, but the sequence’s sheer, horrible immediacy precludes such glib aestheticising. The potential death of a baby is not a convenient image on which to hang clever metaphors – plainly and simply we are witnessing an atrocity, and the film makes no apologies for showing us what that looks like.

At the centre of the piece is al-Kateab’s daughter, Sama, through whom a comforting, quotidian humanity surfaces. As the al-Kateab’s neighbours remark, their children “don’t know what a siege is” – they still want to play, make friends, learn about the world. Even as the city crumbles, Aleppo’s shrinking population salvage normality in any way they can: occupying their kids by painting a burned-out bus; taking untrammelled joy in finding and sharing a persimmon fruit even as the insects infest their last, meagre rations of rice.

Among all this, there is the ethical dilemma of whether they and their neighbours should leave the city to save themselves and their children, culminating in a decision by Waad and Hamza that is baffling to even the most sympathetic of viewers. Al-Kateab herself tells us “to this day, I still don’t understand why I did it”. Eventually, inevitably, the city is broken and the survivors leave. Their sacrifices and scars remain; the final affirmation that is is better together to stand together than to save your own skin is as powerful at the end as in the first, callow days of their costly resistance.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell