As personal and harrowing a documentary can be, this powerful and heart-wrenching work captures a mother’s ‘video diary’ of the daily struggles in Aleppo, Syria, as the brutal 2016 siege by the Assad regime drew frighteningly near.
Dir. Waad Al-Kateab & Edward Watts
2019 | Syria/UK | Documentary | 95 mins | Arabic
NC16 (passed clean) for some mature content
Plot: A love letter from a young mother to her daughter, the film tells the story of the director’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while cataclysmic conflict rises around her.
Awards: Won Golden Eye (Cannes); Nom. for Best Documentary (Oscars)
International Sales: Autlook Film Sales
Singapore Distributor: Anticipate Pictures
Subject Matter: Heavy
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed for Perspectives Film Festival)
We have heard so much about the Syrian refugee crisis, but couldn’t really do anything to help apart from the customary donation. It is also no surprise that documentaries have been made about the impact and implications of the Syrian Civil War, such as Last Men in Aleppo (2017) and City of Ghosts (2017), but none so far has provided a (female) viewpoint as personal and essential about living through the brutal siege as For Sama.
Shot by Waad Al-Kateab, a journalist and mother, over a few years using a digital camcorder, the documentary is pieced together as a ‘video diary’ for her young baby daughter, Sama, who was born during that turbulent period when daily shelling by the Assad regime on his own citizens became a new normal.
Sama will neither grow up in nor see her beautiful home country in peace for a long time, so this gift from her mother is the only way for her to understand what had happened to her land and people.
At its heart, For Sama is a personal plea from a parent to child to remember one’s roots—and this would resonate with anyone who has been away from his or her motherland for some time. But for an international audience, For Sama is a reminder of humanity’s great struggle against oppression.
The word ‘Sama’ means ‘Sky’ in Arabic.
It is harrowing and heart-wrenching as we get first-hand footage of chaos, death and destruction, most powerfully in the hospital scenes where despair can turn into hope, or vice-versa, in the matter of a split second. (Al-Kateab’s husband is a doctor and activist, helping to run Aleppo’s only makeshift hospital after the remaining had been mercilessly destroyed by Assad’s forces.)
By being such a personal piece, For Sama has a raw tenderness to it that shines through even in the bleakest of scenarios—one might call it a mother’s love, marked by sharp journalistic instincts.
The sheer vulnerability of Sama as a baby living in a war zone is foregrounded by Al-Kateab’s ever-ready viewfinder, and this gives us a rare and intimate connection with a newborn in her early years.
Taking a camera to capture a baby’s growing years is not new—anyone who can commit can do it easily. But what Al-Kateab has done here transcends all of that—as one life begins, a nation of people’s ends.