NoFirst-hand accounts of war are not new to cinema, with films such as First They Killed My Father, Waltz with Bashir and 5 Broken Cameras being prime examples of personal accounts which highlight the disillusionment of war. Director duo, Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, manage to uniquely capture the act of yearning for peace and holding on to hope in senseless violence following Al-Kateab’s experience of the Syrian Civil War. As both a documentary and love-letter, For Sama shines as a personal anecdote of women in war and as a dedication to Al-Kateab’s newborn child, Sama.
The film—an ode to cinéma vérité—is shot with a shaky hand-held camera from the start of the Syrian revolution when Waad was a student to around 2016. Narrated by Waad, she speaks as if talking to her daughter Sama, telling her about Waad and Hamza’s journey as students of the revolution and their decision to stay in Aleppo to fight for the end of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Her husband, Hamza, runs the hospital caring for thousands of patients wounded in the crossfire. Waad films the impact of war capturing those injured in the hospital and uploading them online. We see hordes of the injured coming through the door, mothers screaming while carrying out dead children covered in white cloths.
It was during the early 2010’s when the film was shot and footage of the Syrian War was just reaching Australian newsrooms. I was in high school trying to keep up to date with the Arab Spring. The thought of revolution seemed thrilling, and yet, at the same time, it felt like a personal responsibility to know these things. That good people rise to the sun, visit their grandparents often, and keep up-to-date with the horrors around the globe. My 14-year-old self was soon disappointed to find that talking about war and death would scare away potential friends, and that people around me mostly found the topic of war tired, foreign and depressing.
Throughout the film, Waad captures quiet moments between friends and lovers. In one scene, she films a man warming his hands on the carcass of a bomb. In another, she films her close friend receiving a surprise from her husband. The husband tells his wife that he has a surprise for her with his hands in his pockets. The wife is smiling and curious. He pulls a persimmon out of his pocket which she grabs from his hand and clasps it like a priceless ornament, causing the couple to smile and flirt affectionately. This display of affection reminds the audiences of the human lives behind the numbers. Suheir Hammad wrote in her poem about 9/11 that “These stars and stripes represent the dead as citizens first. Not family. Not lovers”. Waad’s film reminds audiences that war affects people with lives like ours; people who think it’s sweet to surprise their lovers with thoughtful gifts and choose to make lemonade out of lemons.
Image from The Irish News
But For Sama is a war film, and dutifully so, there is dispersed footage showing the true sorrow of war: mothers holding dead children, other children holding dead children… This means that at times, the film feels like a projection of Waad’s fear. After these scenes of death and sorrow, we see a peaceful Sama: Sama smiling, being tenderly passed around to hospital staff and doted on, Sama sleeping… During one scene, a mother who has just recently lost her child begins wailing at Al-Kataeb. “Why are you filming this?”, she weeps; her palms to the sky and eyes wide.
The film, narrated by Al Kataeb, talks about her disillusionment with her videos reaching millions of views and airtime on international broadcasts yet no help arriving to assist the people of Aleppo. Expressions of sympathy begin to feel like jeers when cries for help are broadcasted to millions of viewers but the people of Aleppo are still being bombed. Helplessness seems to arise within her. I too, felt helpless when there was nothing that I could do to assist at 14. The people of Aleppo felt this same emotion when pleas to foreign nations for assistance led to proxy-wars in Syria.
To watch a film like For Sama and remain the same is a disservice to cinema and the pain of others. Film and media can stir people into action but the action does not have to be big. It can be direct aid towards helping those affected or increasing the purview of lives unlike ours which will help in allowing us to increase our capacity for empathy. It can be deciding to be kind.
But helplessness is just a feeling. There is always a choice of action, and Al-Kataeb reminds us of this throughout her film, videoing the staff in the hospital who choose to stay at their own risk. Her own choice to keep Sama near her is perilous but the thought of leaving her daughter would be too painful.
For Sama is not an easy watch but it’s a necessary reminder of the might in the choices that we make and that the power of this film could be lost if more energy is not put towards being a kinder and compassionate people.