SXSW Review: For Sama


For Sama is the story of the Syrian uprising and civil war, told through the point of view of Waad al Kateab. Her motivation for making the film is her daughter, Sama — a beautiful wide-eyed girl who has been born at such a tumultuous time. ‘Forgive me for bringing you into this world,’ pleads her mother: it’s this intimacy and reflection on life that leads the way for the rest of the film. From the outset, she addresses her young daughter, as if the film and its campaign are all a love letter to her. This tenderness is bittersweet combined with Waad’s very serious statement: ‘I’m leaving this footage to you, in case I don’t survive.’ The idea of a mother leaving a legacy for such a young child in the event of her death is heartbreaking, but it’s exactly what we need to see, in order to understand the civil war as a historical fact, as an international crisis, and as a reality for so many.

For Sama
Directors: Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts

Rating: TBC
Release Date: March 11, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)

There are few words I can really use to describe this documentary: it’s certainly a document in the most literal sense — a recording of events in a few individuals’ lives, which gives it a factual, journalistic approach to the political uprising. However, it’s also a deeply personal story and it couldn’t have been told by anyone other than Waad. Using real footage recorded during her day to day interactions in Aleppo between 2012-2017, it records the rise of the Islamist regime and the destructive civil war through her own eyes, but most importantly told through the lens of a mother, deeply affectionate towards her daughter, doing everything that she can to protect her and to try to make the world a better place for her.

We soon come to the realization that she won’t be able to protect her daughter forever: a seemingly innocuous opening scene in which Waad is playing with her baby soon leads to an airstrike, so completely unexpected from a viewer point of view that at first, I thought it was staged. No, in fact, it’s legitimate, so much so that a wall falls through and the dust balloons up into the corridor. There’s definitive fear as Waad hands Sama to a nearby pair of hands in order to find out what’s going on, then runs through the corridors with cries of ‘where’s my baby?’ One thing that this documentary does really well is to align the viewer with Waad’s experience. Perhaps it’s an unintentional result of the way that she has acquired footage, but the fact is that the camera acts as our eyes and ears into her world. This positioning is absolutely crucial to the way in which we experience the world of Aleppo.

Throughout the film, we encounter stories that are shocking, sad, but also full of beauty and hope. Waad, already a vocal journalist and activist, meets Hamza, who is training to become a doctor. They fall in love, they’re married and they have a beautiful baby girl — it’s a compelling story and were it not for the backdrop of the war, it would make the perfect Hollywood ending. But, alas, life is much different for the couple. They daily face the threat of airstrikes and bombings, and the most shocking part about this for me wasn’t the frequency of the attacks but how little they seemed to bother the residents of the city. Children, hearing the explosions, would calmly leave the area with their parents, often without crying. In fact, footage shows a group of young friends laughing together, making fun of a non-local who had recently been in an airstrike and was caught unawares. It seems that in a situation where violence is inevitable, the only thing to do is stoically grin and bear it, even laughing in the face of death. It was shocking, but somewhat uneasily gave me relief from the attacks.

Moments of hope and joy are used to bring out the best in humanity in the face of violence, but that’s not to say that the film is all as optimistic. Tragically, a number of the people who Waad and Hamza are closest with are killed in strikes: while we see them joyfully joking around one minute, we’re informed by Waad’s voiceover that they were unfortunately lost. The fact that this is still happening in the modern day seems unbelievable, yet Waad is resigned to the fact and accepts that this is the cycle that life takes. Her voiceover serves to guide viewers through her journey and isn’t too intrusive: a lot of the time she allows episodes to be shown rather than spelling it out. This is the distinction of a true storyteller, and she fluently moves us through time in order to show us what she has had to live through.

One truly affecting sequence took place when an airstrike and bombing had left a vast spread of casualties. A woman, nine months into her pregnancy, was heartbreakingly murdered — and it is, in fact, a murder. Although this is not the kind of discourse usually used to describe bombings, and a more clinical, statistical, pain-free vocabulary is normally used, the scale of bombings make it proportional to genocide. This indicates a shift in discourse that needs to be adopted in order to fully grasp the reality of the situation. The mother is unable to be saved, but in a raw and unedited sequence, doctors perform an emergency Caesarian and free an almost-newborn baby. It looks as if the worst has happened, but in a true miracle (and I use it in the most literal sense of the word), its eyes open and the baby cries, coming back to life. Believe me when I say I was completely floored by this — even writing about it afterwards makes me feel unbelievably grateful for the gift that life is. It doesn’t matter whether that sounds cliched — this film put me in touch with humanity in a deeper way and should serve as a reminder that we are all human, are all so fortunate to be alive, and should never take it for granted.

I had the opportunity to interview Waad about her film and asked her if she saw herself primarily as a reporter, an observer or as an activist for the cause. She described herself as all of these things, though primarily as the mother of Sama, and I would define her as the central personality of the film.  I also asked about what the filmmakers and producers could expect as a response from the film. Indeed, For Sama made me grateful for the safety of the West and the lives that we lead there — surely there is contention in displaying a film like this at such a large, corporate festival as SXSW. How could we reconcile having so much freedom and joy when there are such terrible things happening to fellow human beings across the world? I hope that its elevation in the festival circuit will encourage people to become more aware of what’s going on in the world and to pay attention to their humanity beneath all the cultural differences. The producer’s response was to express the hope that people across the world will become more aware of the atrocities taking place, as the more educated and active we become in supporting these causes, the less likely it will have to be repeated again in the future.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.