The Amazon is burning and the polar ice caps are melting. Immigrants seeking a better life are being separated from their children and detained like animals. Wars are being raged in lands near and far. Seemingly everywhere we look, strife and suffering abounds, and if you focus on any of it for just a fraction of a second too long, it may all be too much to handle. It’s all too big, too complicated, too painful to keep up with day-in and day-out, let alone dig deep enough into to have any real understanding of the underlying causes or solutions.
Focus instead, then, on the stories told by those living through it. Focus instead on the real, live humanity in the middle of it all—the people just like you and me, with lives and dreams and hopes and fears. Trying to feed their children, to help the injured, to fight for what they believe is right.
Activist-turned-filmmaker Waad al-Kateab invites us into the belly of one particular beast in For Sama, her firsthand account of life in war-torn Aleppo, Syria during the height of that country’s civil war (which, it’s worth noting, still continues today). The circumstances and events leading up to the war are far too complex to recount in a film review, so for the truly curious, consider this insightful overview. Suffice it to say that those committed to democracy, human rights and freedom (Waad and her community among them) faced a truly inconceivable decision: stay in the city they call home—the city where they grew up, received an education, dreamed about a future—and fight for what they believe in, or abandon it all and let go of everything they love.
Waad and her friends, including a young doctor named Hamza, decide to not only stay but to open a make-shift hospital in the heart of the fighting, a place to serve the men, women and children who fall victim to the daily bombings and air strikes from Assad and his Russian allies. In the midst of it all, Waad and Hamza fall in love and, in a truly incredible testament to the human spirit, not only get married but have a daughter, Sama. It’s for her that Waad makes this deeply personal chronicle of what one only hopes is the most difficult time in her parents’ lives. Waad’s footage is exhaustive and unflinching, as she records moments of daily life on her small handheld camcorder, whether those moments are tender (welcoming Sama into the world) or terrifying (children identifying the body of their brother, who’d been killed by an air strike).
There’s a lot to be angry about in For Sama, from the conditions Waad and her community are forced to live in to the seemingly endless drum beat of bombs and even Waad and Hamza’s ostensibly selfish decision to bring a new life into this mess. Who would do that to a child? How could life ever thrive in a place surrounded by death?
None of this, of course, is lost on Waad, and it’s her thoughtful and often tortured narration throughout that reminds us that she and Hamza are far more aware of their reality than anyone watching the resulting film could be. She films through even the most tragic events, fighting back her own tears and anger, determined to document the truth, the real human impact of modern war. There are glimpses of “ordinary” life, as the women organize a small school in the hospital basement for the children, but simple activities like a day with colorful paints turn heartbreaking when it’s revealed the kids are painting a bombed, burned out school bus. And the newlyweds suffer, too; though they move into a room in the hospital for both safety and convenience, Waad and her new husband sometimes go days without seeing each other.
If it were a news report or a post scrolled past on social media, For Sama would contain a trigger warning, one of those heads up that lets the viewer know: sensitive content ahead; may not be suitable for all audiences. In fact, a film like For Sama should be seen by as many people as possible, people with hearts that break and consciences that demand better for our collective humanity. Perhaps then, when Sama grows up to look back at the film her mother made for her, she’ll be as confounded as anyone about how such things could ever have happened, so far gone is the threat of war from our world.
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