“For Sama,” winner of 2019’s South by Southwest and Cannes film festival awards for best documentary, opens Friday at the Roxie. (Courtesy PBS Distribution)

‘For Sama’ a powerful, touching view of Syrian war

New mother documents trauma, beauty of life in Aleppo

Filmmaker and journalist Waad al-Kateab shares her eye-of-the-storm footage of the Syrian conflict and her personal story of hope and survival in besieged Aleppo in “For Sama.” Presented as a love letter from al-Kateab to her infant daughter, the film, opening Friday at the Roxie, uniquely and movingly documents everyday human experiences in a war zone.

The now London-based al-Kateab and fellow director Edward Watts cover the period of 2012 through 2016, when the battle of Aleppo, between Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and anti-Assad rebels, was raging.

Al-Kateab’s story unfolds not chronologically, focusing on 2016 and flashing back and forth through the years preceding it.

In voice-over, al-Kateab, 26, describes her days as a college student participating in upbeat Arab Spring-inspired protests against Assad’s corrupt, dictatorial rule.

The government responded brutally, the Assad-supporting Russian military entered the picture, and the situation escalated into one of the deadliest wars of the current century.

Al-Kateab fell in love with a doctor named Hamza and began filming the carnage she witnessed at the hospital where he worked. Eventually, her war-zone footage became widely viewed outside Syria.

The pair married. On the first day of 2016, as bombs fell, their daughter and ray of hope, Sama, was born.

In ongoing spoken text delivered lovingly to Sama, al-Kateab explains that she chose to stay in dangerous Aleppo so that she could continue fighting for freedom. She cites Sama’s future as the reason she’s persevered.

The film isn’t an easy watch. Al-Kateab’s camera captures death and disaster resulting from airstrikes, shellings, massacres and chlorine-gas attacks. Rubble fills the street and blood streaks the floor. Many casualties are children.

But al-Kateab and Watts have delivered an extraordinary picture of the toll of the war on ordinary lives. The film also stands out as an indictment of the rest of the world for its neglect of the tragedy of Syria.

Through al-Kateab, who works tirelessly for the sake of her daughter but who, at one point, despairingly wishes her child had never been born, the film also shows the conflict from a seldom-represented mother’s-eye perspective.

The nonlinear presentation, while sometimes undermining clarity, is generally effective. By continually returning to 2016, rather than eventually landing there, the filmmakers keep the 2016-born Sama in the foreground. Al-Kateab’s devotion to her daughter forms the movie’s emotional core, and this intimate component keeps viewers deeply involved.

Al-Kateab’s interest in showing hope amid anguish produces wonderful moments of down-to-earth joy — planting a garden, writing “I love you” in the snow, delighting at the sight of a persimmon — along with occasional incidents that amaze. A doctor who, using only his hands, brings to life a seemingly stillborn baby is unforgettable.

In the final inning, when the regime has recaptured Aleppo and the family must evacuate, the film takes on the added tone of a thriller.

A montage that spotlights colleagues and friends who have fought and sometimes died for the revolution gives shining closure to al-Kateab’s overall story of love and courage.


For Sama

Three and a half stars

Starring: Waad al-Kateab, Hamza al-Kateab

Directed by: Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

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