Though it’s not vital to appreciating her achievement, Waad al-Kateab was not a trained filmmaker when she started recording her day-to-day existence in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo in 2012. At the time she was studying for a business degree, and while protests against the regime of the dictator Bashar as-Assad were growing, the civil war that eventually overran the country and destroyed Aleppo had yet to reach its deadliest phase. The beginning of this remarkable documentary contains the kind of casual everyday videos you’d expect from a 26-year-old woman who is pursuing her dream of a better life. They are hopeful and even playful at times. Al-Kateab is clearly on the sides of the rebels, longing for the day when Assad is gone, but as the national army and its proxies start bombarding the town, first to destroy rebel forces and then the IS contingents that move in to take advantage of the chaos, loyalties fade from the picture because survival is the first priority.
It is vital that al-Kateab show her happy wedding to Hamza, because he is an emergency medical doctor, and thus provides al-Kateab with a context to present the siege and the accompanying violence. The title refers to their daughter, since the record of the violence is meant as something she will inherit in case her parents die. Sama will understand how they lived through such a hellish experience. The footage has an immediacy intensified by its subtext as a kind of potential last will and testament. As the bombs get closer and the mangled bodies rushed into the hospital become more plentiful, the impulse to flee is more pronounced, but al-Kateab and Sama stay with Hamza, who has work to do even in a facility that itself is being destroyed from without. She records so many near-death experiences on her part that the movie becomes almost unwatchable, and yet as a cinematographer she has an instinctive talent for knowing how to frame horrifying tableaux. Certainly the most stirring cinematic moment I’ve experienced in recent years is the scene where a stillborn baby cries itself to life after several heartbreaking minutes of seemingly useless exertions by the pediatric staff. More to the point, her voiceover, much of it provided as she records, is precise without being reductive. Sometimes she miscalculates, as when a mother whose child has just died in front of her berates al-Kateab for recording her. Al-Kateab seems to understand that her actions are ethically questionable, and yet she perseveres with the conviction that these images are important.
The world does need to see this, and that is where al-Kateab’s co-director, Edward Watts, who put together the footage long after it was shot and then added some stunning drone shots of the entirely wiped out city, comes in. Al-Kateab is bent on documenting everyday life in hell, where people still try to hang on to normality. Watts gives it a narrative arc and a larger news context that is never intrusive but nonetheless impressive in its scope. The pure craft on display is perhaps the most hopeful think about For Sama. Someone thinks this is worth fussing over.
In Arabic and English. Opens Feb. 29 in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Shibuya (03-5766-0114).
For Sama home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Channel 4 Television Corp. MMXIX