For Sama review – This century’s most extraordinary item of citizen journalism
2nd September 2020
Dirs: Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts. With: Waad al-Kateab, Hamza al-Kateab, Sama al-Kateab. Running time: 100 mins.
Traditionally, documentaries about conflict are made by outsiders: journalists with travel visas that permit them to duck out of the action whenever they need pauses for thought. The subjects of For Sama, this century’s most extraordinary item of citizen journalism, happen to be living in the middle of that action, without any comparable privilege. Here is a work that shows us what it is to inhabit a warzone, and to experience war within the panicked confines of a home, a workplace, a makeshift nursery. The explosions are heard and the damage seen at close-quarters; the effects are far more keenly felt than they would be from any more neutral perspective.
Alongside an account of the war that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has been waging on his own people for most of the past decade, For Sama describes one young woman’s coming-of-age – though trial-by-fire may be the more accurate term. Our narrator is Waad al-Kateab, a tech-savvy economics student fond of uploading videos of daily life online. The difference is that al-Kateab wasn’t recording days out or dance routines; her video diaries documented student protests, bodies being fished out of rivers, and – as Assad called in air strikes – an entire neighbourhood being blown to bits.
Be warned: that footage is often raw, regularly alighting upon accusatory shots of innocent children bleeding out on the floors of emergency rooms. Yet al-Kateab has shaped it, with assistance from the British journalist Edward Watts, into a letter to her own daughter Sama, born in the war’s early stages. The narration betrays the extent of al-Kateab’s internal conflict: “I need you to understand the choices your father and I made.” The biggest of these was to stay put, so al-Kateab’s doctor husband Hamza could treat the victims of Assad’s indiscriminate barbarism, and she could show the world what was happening to Syria.
A heavy cloud of threat thus hangs over the film, but what al-Kateab also captured – what helps For Sama from becoming a punishingly tough watch – is the humour and hope that helped the director’s loved ones endure this ordeal. The domestic footage al-Kateab shot whenever the bombing relented is itself out of the ordinary: Hamza emerges as a man remaining calm under unimaginable pressure, so innately nurturing that his first response to hearing shells landing outside is to go and see whether the plants need watering. The couple’s childrearing concerns are universal, but also exacerbated by distant explosions that wake their child.
One reason the film took such hold on Western audiences is the quality of its reportage. Al-Kateab is supremely attentive to the changing landscape around her, what could be seen once the smoke cleared. Buildings subside or are obliterated altogether; seasons change, snow falls; the blood is mopped up, and the doctors start work again. As a new mother, she’s acutely alert to the miracle that anything could grow in these circumstances: hence an astonishing mid-film sequence involving the apparently lifeless body of a heavily pregnant woman caught in the shelling. Even here, even in the midst of so much death, life went on, unbounded, defiant.
Until it got too much, as we well understand entering the last half-hour, which finds the couple plotting to smuggle Sama out of Syria: a setpiece that proves as tense as those in any recent action-thriller. More sensitive viewers may need reassurance that there was a happy ending for this family, if not for those left behind in the rubble – but For Sama constitutes an immensely powerful monument to the fallen, and the questions it raises linger long after the credits. Can Syria ever recover from this self-harm? Will Sama ever be able to return to her birthplace? Will any witness to these sights ever forget what they’ve seen?