The first few minutes of For Sama are nerve-wracking as Syrian activist filmmaker Waad al-Kateab runs through a bombed hospital, camera in hand, searching for her young daughter amidst tons of evacuees. The child is okay, and it’s important to remember that over and over, while the documentary jumps around in time. At various moments, we may otherwise fear again about the girl’s survival. With a title like For Sama, why wouldn’t we expect the Dear Zachary level worst?
I don’t want to spoil the film, but I also don’t want to believe Kateab means for us to view her film so distressed with regards to the fate of Sama, her titular daughter. Even though she also puts us through a near-traumatizing sequence with an emergency cesarean delivery of a baby who arrives seemingly still-born only to be miraculously resuscitated. Other kids are graphically shown to not be so lucky, casualties of the constant strikes on Aleppo by the Assad regime and Russian forces. Sama, however, lives through it all.
As do her parents, which if you haven’t followed any of Kateab’s promotion of For Sama would also not seem to be a certainty. After all, there is a second director, British filmmaker Edward Watts, who helped compile all of her footage and construct For Sama as a documentary feature. While I watched, I initially wondered if she had not survived, and he had to finish the film. And that was indeed some of the concern for Kateab, as well. For Sama is basically a cinematic letter to her daughter showing her who her parents were and the country they came from, stayed behind in, and fought for in case she and her husband, Sama’s father, activist doctor Hamza al-Kateab, died.
What about Sama, though, I kept thinking. the Kahteabs keep her in Aleppo with her, even after there’s an offer for her to stay in Turkey with relatives. On the one hand, of course, the parents want their child with them, and on the other hand, of course, there’s a bit of selfishness and child endangerment in that decision. Waad and Hamza as a duo are the perfect potential martyrs in being the heroic reporter of what’s going on (much of her footage was regularly sent to news media or posted on YouTube) and the heroic doctor trying to save the lives of fellow remaining citizens. They’re also holding on and holding out for the love of the homeland they know and prefer not to give up and abandon.
Waad narrates her story and provides footage going back a number of years, including clips of her and Hamza’s wedding video. Despite its present tense, the voiceover is all post-plot reflection, and it’s sometimes elegiac in tone as if spoken by a fiction film character narrating from beyond the grave. Combined with visuals that are so immediate in their hand-held camera phone aesthetic, mixing up home movie and journalism, the narration feels slightly removed from it all. Because of this, after its opening scene, For Sama rarely has the anxious energy of such correlative documentaries as Last Men in Aleppo or Midnight Traveler.
The film is still among the most harrowing of the year, and it’s often very difficult to watch. Ultimately, though, with no disrespect to all the human lives seen lost on screen, the primary casualty of For Sama is Aleppo. Because of this, Waad al-Kateab and Watts might have set up the city more as it once was with regards to what’s now been destroyed. Yet it’s more about this being the place where the Kateabs lived, met, had their first child. There’s a personal sentimentality to the film, so even if this is an intimate first-person experience meant to represent many during the conflict, and even with our concern for side characters here and there, we foremost care about the emotional toll of the Kateabs.
I can’t begin to understand their decision to keep Sama with them in Aleppo, residing hazardously in a makeshift hospital until the family and other citizens’ forced exodus from Syria, but Waad admits that she and Hamza didn’t know why, either. In their heads, they believed she should stay with grandparents in Turkey, but in their hearts, they believed the child should be home with them. The film, as dedicated to Sama, wouldn’t be the same either way, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily better this way than that.
Not that it’s worth mulling over as if this was a planned movie at all, let alone a scripted one. We don’t have to understand all the decisions made by Waad in her life, or the Syrian government in its attacks, or the world in its response to appreciate the firsthand footage that makes us feel like we’re right there as the bombs fall and as other mothers scream out because of their own children’s inescapable fates. As we witness the war from this perspective, our brains and our hearts might not be in agreement. But that divide is one of the most powerful things a documentary can do to us.