A powerful film about the siege of Aleppo and the struggle for a Free Syria represents a new addition to the depressingly growing genre of ‘genocide documentaries’, writes Zareen Taj.
For Sama (dir. Waad Al-Khateab, Edward Watts; USA 2019; 1h 40min)
Bashar Al Assad deployed enough firepower to annihilate over 1000 of his civilian population between April and August this year in Idlib and Hama provinces. The release of For Sama is a timely reminder of the ongoing struggle of the Syrian people for freedom.
Based on the months between 2014 and 2016 Hamza al-Khateab’s hospital staff struggled to care for the casualties of war after the initial Syrian uprising and the consequent siege of Aleppo, For Sama is a prize-winning documentary film. Filmed entirely by Waad al-Khateab, the video diary is framed as a letter to her baby daughter, Sama, to address why she and her husband, Hamza, decided to stay to support the struggle for a Free Syria.
The film is cleverly edited to show flashbacks of positive times to break the harrowing scenes of war; also included is the disorientating footage as Waad stumbles through smoke filled corridors after an air raid to convey a very personal account of the fight for liberation. By just remaining where they were, Waad and Hamza were resisting Assad’s brutal regime and ultimately became a target for direct airstrikes.
Simply told, the account of the siege of Aleppo shows the onslaught by Assad’s forces, airstrikes by Russian planes and the occasional role played by the extremist soldiers of ISIS. The people employ what tactics they can to throw off the air attacks, for instance by burning rubber tyres to create a shield of dense smoke to confuse pilots. Waad depicts, through her candid shots, the impact of war on everyday life and children in particular. She holds the camera close up and very still for emphasis at certain dramatic points of the narrative and walks unevenly against the flow of injured pouring in to the makeshift hospital to show the chaos that ensues after heavy shelling. Children as young as five or six years old are able to articulate details of their life in war condition and already have a vocabulary to include ‘shelling’ and ‘cluster bombs’.
We see the hopefulness and spirit of the early years of the Syrian revolution, in footage from a university campus in 2013 when Waad, narrating in Arabic, tries to justify her decision to keep a new born child in a war zone. A duty to support the resistance and lay claim to Aleppo for the people inspires all those who struggle on during the siege and refuse to leave for safer lands.
The decision is shown to be perilous, however. Waad’s aerial images of the decimation of the city over the months must have been taken by her own drone mounted camera. Up-to-date technology—her fancy watch is seen briefly on screen—has facilitated collating material for the film from various devices. Hamza is seen often on his phone conducting interviews for the world media in their one room apartment in his hospital. These can be viewed online in a video search for ‘hamza al-khateeb doctor’ and correlate well with Waad’s documentary (variant spellings: Hamza al-Khateab/ Khateeb/Khatib).
Released by ITN News and Channel 4, the film has brought together Edward Watts as co-director with Waad and the excellent editing talents of Chloe Lambourne and Simon McMahon. The dramatic impact of sequences is heightened by the original score Nainita Desai which is used sparingly and does not overpower the narrative as some soundtracks can do with emotional topics.
Some of the coverage surrounding this film, with Waad being interviewed on daytime television and being asked banal questions, tends to reduce the huge impact it should make. Instead we should take the example of groups such as SOAS Syria Society, which has kept up the profile of the struggle.
For Sama is a truly moving account of the struggle against oppression and the losses that must be endured. As far as the film’s place in cinema catalogues are concerned, one online comment suggested that it can be defined as ‘Genocide documentary’: ‘We are in an era of celebrated genocide documentaries’.
For Sama was awarded the Prix L’Œil d’Or for Best Documentary at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It also won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival, and the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs Festival.