Sheffield Doc/Fest: ‘For Sama’ Review

There’s one constant in For Sama, one thing that is always looming and felt: bombs. Falling from above — shells whistling through the smoke-filled sky smothering Aleppo — plummeting towards the occupied city. Throughout Waad Al-Khateab’s video diary of the months-long siege, these weapons of war are never far away. Remember the way Dunkirk used the threat of the German planes to put us on edge? — imagine that, but raw footage with real people. For Sama is nerve-wracking. Waad plays with her infant daughter while shells are exploding in the near vicinity. Waad walks towards a doorway but a massive bang stops her in her tracks. Families hide on bottom floors of buildings while the ground shakes and children scream. The visceral quality of the real perspective Waad was brave enough to provide had tonight’s audience on the edge of their seat.

The graphic nature of For Sama made it uncomfortable to watch, but I didn’t dare avert my eyes. Not just because I was invested (like anyone would be) in the safety of Waad, her husband, and their daughter Sama, but because I felt it would be wrong to. It’s a cold reality that’s shown; dead babies, mothers cradling their lifeless children, and other unthinkable scenes, but the people in For Sama lived through these daily horrors for months, so it’s only right we should oblige when asked to confront the atrocities the film shows. It’s a very strange thing to have a front seat to what took place in Aleppo, but it’s critical that we understand and empathize with what happened.

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© Waad Al-Khateab

The film’s timeline spans a few years, from the beginning of the people’s revolution to its very end. It’s a miracle that Waad ever decided to start filming. At first, it was just student protests, but as things got progressively worse she kept filming — reportedly amassing around five hundred hours of footage. For Sama is a project that feels essential because it’s unlikely for something as dangerous and immediate as a siege to be captured from start to finish by one person. This is the effort of someone deciding again and again to take a camera out despite the life-threatening forces around her. As we get to know Waad and her growing family, the film takes the shape of a mother’s perspective. Waad is incredibly open, and through voiceover explains the guilt she felt bringing a child into the situation she was living in, the fear of seeing her baby dead like the many she’d seen inside the hospital she’s living in, and lovingly ponders how much Sama understands.

Every moment of For Sama is unpredictable and achingly human. It allows us to see what happened in Aleppo in human terms instead of the matter-of-fact nature of news headlines. Waad grieves for her friends as she tenderly includes moments of companionship; letting viewers into her awful predicament. When all is said and done, the hundreds of hours of footage is whittled down to a breathtaking ninety-five minutes (with the help of co-director Edward Watts). The result is a harrowing and moving piece of factual filmmaking that is a fantastic example of how powerful documentaries can be. It’s a compliment to the genre, and a compliment to everyone involved both on screen and in the making of the final product. During the end of the film, Waad records the destroyed streets of her city and wonders if it will be remembered. If For Sama has anything to do with it, it certainly will be.

★★★★

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