Documentary 'For Sama' Shows the Courage of Existential Love in War-Torn Syria
For Sama urges the preservation of basic human rights — including the right to parent a child in her birthplace — at all costs, not only for this particular Syrian family's future, but for the survival of the human race.
Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
Frontline / PBS
26 Jul 2019 (US, limited)Other
An early scene in For Sama is a handheld video of the eponymous newborn giggling; a cutesy clip seemingly destined for Instagram. Except here, in the background, a cacophony of bombs are exploding just outside the child's room. The filmmaker's husband then calls the mother to bring the baby downstairs. She obliges, and immediately a horror film emerges, as she and her baby enter a bomb shelter in the last remaining hospital of Aleppo, Syria, in 2016.
At the time Sama was born, the Syrian regime and Russian allied forces' had commenced a several-month long air strike to destroy a Syrian rebel stronghold, one which had developed as part of the Syrian Civil War born out of mass demonstrations beginning in 2011 to remove President Bashar al-Assad in response to numerous human rights violations.
The introductory scene, like the rest of directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts's haunting documentary, was captured by al-Kateab with a handheld camera over the course of four years in war-torn Aleppo. More than just a string of atrocities, For Sama captures al-Kateab, a 20-something journalist, and her husband, Hamza, a humanitarian doctor, in an utterly devastating moral conflict. Should the couple flee a city under siege to protect Sama, or do they stay with the cause while their child remains in ever-present danger?
A clear answer is impossible. Were Hamza to leave Aleppo, he would abandon his self-built hospital, where he notes that over a 20-day stretch his medical team performed 890 operations and tended to an outpouring of 6,000 wounded individuals. The opportunity to save many lives — including a remarkably detailed sequence where doctors perform a c-section on an unconscious woman— would be forsaken.
Waad and Hamza al-Kateab (IMDB)
Likewise, had she left, al-Kateab, she would have surrendered the opportunity to document perhaps the great humanitarian crisis of a decade; one which bravely captures children's bloody corpses strewn across hospital floors while their mothers' cry in agonizing shock and siblings look on in a stupor. "Children have nothing to do with this. Nothing!," one doctor cries after witnessing a mother break down upon identifying her dead child, his body wrapped in O.R. scrubs. In another shocking scene, al-Kateab asks an adolescent uncle — his face caked in dirt from a recent bomb explosion as he looks over his deceased nephew— if he knows where the child's parents are. He calmly replies, "Dead, I think."
The carnage is ceaseless, with al-Kateab steadily focusing on floors swamped with blood and streets filled with rubble. But aside from intense unsettlement, to what end does the coverage serve? In one particularly forthright scene, al-Kateab scans over her YouTube page, which indicates that her videos have amassed more than a million views. And yet, she observes, the bombing and bloodshed continue just outside her home.
The utterly helpless moment questions whether any real-time journalistic clips — or even an extended collection of them — will incite global intervention to curtail human rights horrors; this in a day and age when the passive consumption of horrible imagery is quickly brushed away with another -- unrelated -- news story, or even worse, a tweet from an unhinged president.
Knowing this, it's a struggle to remain unbiased regarding Waad and Hamza al-Kateab's decision to remain in Aleppo. If indeed "children have no say in this", isn't it ethically troubling that a newborn has even less of a voice as to whether to sleep in a makeshift nursery barricaded by sandbags to protect her from bomb shrapnel? What are we to make of the film's apparent paradoxes, between a mother's prayers that her baby survives another day, and a scene where she videotapes Sama in the foreground while another dead child lies just a few feet away in the background?
Waad al-Kateab (IMDB)
These questions threaten to muddle the film's journalistic indictment of the Syrian regime's indiscriminate brutality in Aleppo with another narrative of a moral and ethical inquiry into the family's decision-making concerning their infant daughter. al-Kateab attempts to seamlessly connect the two portrayals by treating her decision as a choiceless choice. The results of this approach are not entirely satisfactory, nor can they be. However, al-Kateab's uncompromising stance ultimately proves to be profoundly reflective, and effectively urgent.
After visiting Hamza's parents in Turkey in 2016, Waad and Hamza return with their baby to Aleppo upon learning that the Syrian regime had almost seized the city's last road. "No-one understood. But in our hearts we felt like we had to go back and bring you with us. We didn't know why," Waad's voiceover softly recalls while a van sneaks the family back into the city, walkie-talkies reporting various enemy attack points in the backdrop. Hamza expounds on their decision: "Every one of us has a large role in supporting justice against oppression, even this one [referring to Sama] has a role in deciding the outcome."
Rejection of these ideas as logically unsound and selfish is tempting, particularly when the film advances them as foregone conclusions. But al-Kateab and Hamza's work strives for an "outcome" greater than a single victory. On a broader level , For Sama urges for the preservation of basic human rights — including the right to parent a child in her birthplace — at all costs, not only for the al-Kateab family's future but for the survival of the human race. The stakes are this dire.
Waad al-Kateab does not expressly argue this point, instead allowing lived-in moments to simply be shown and her subjects, to speak for themselves. Roving her camera gently around her home's concrete garden in 2015, she marvels at an arrangement of violets she and Hamza planted. Months later, a bomb destroys the garden. This symbol of beauty and a peaceful domestic life is destroyed, a portent of the world's future if fascist governments, secular tyrannies, and nationalism continue to mushroom at our currently alarming rate.
Parents who consider the world their "family", if you will, provides a silver lining surrounding this severe outlook. At one point, when a child is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he lucidly responds: "I want to be an architect so I can rebuild Alaeppo." It may be the most heroic cinematic line this year.
For Sama's most deft commentary, however, may be on the world's ongoing refugee crisis. And this is not only as a blistering critique of nationalists who balk at the idea of parents and children evacuating countries out of fear of human rights violations and persecution. For Sama also captures the inestimable value of refugees who endure intense hardship as people who can provide the world with rich diversity and experiences, not least those whose countries are imploding from senseless neo-capitalistic groupthink and its resulting levels of callous spending.
In For Sama, watch a Syrian wife's sheer joy when her husband gives her the simple gift of persimmon. Observe volunteers at a hospital huddled in a small room, many who sacrificed their college education to save lives, as they make jokes and sing songs together. See a teacher and her children beautify an incinerated school bus, or an elderly pair play a game of chess next to collapsed buildings. Compare these moments to the petty trifles and frustrations many individuals from wealthier countries endure at the slightest deprivation of a luxury good.
For so many reasons, For Sama is for you.