Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
Over the past few years there has been no shortage of documentaries – both short and feature length – about the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria, particularly the city of Aleppo. For the last two years running there’s been an Oscar-nominated feature (Of Fathers and Sons and Last Men in Aleppo), and the year before that there were two shorts nominated together (Watani: My Homeland and winner The White Helmets). It’s an issue rife with stories, and sadly, because the problem has basically been ignored by the world at large, there’s an urgency to get them out as a means of drawing attention.
The problem with a lot of these films is not that they aren’t compelling. Rather, they suffer from a kind of detachment. Sometimes, like in Of Fathers and Sons, that detachment is necessary, as the filmmaker risked his life under an assumed identity to get in close with ISIS fighters. But in others, there’s no resonance because most of the footage, interviews, and heroic moments played like news coverage. The audience cares, certainly. People are dying by the score, and it’s essential to showcase the good people simply trying to help and live a free life, but there was a decidedly human element that always felt like it was missing.
Thankfully, that is not the case with the latest entry, For Sama, a truly amazing and intimate look at the real-life struggle, not just to survive, but to cling to some semblance of normalcy in a maelstrom of violence. Available on YouTube and PBS, this film has already earned multiple accolades, and should be considered a front-runner for the Academy.
The film is presented as a video diary and love letter from Waad Al-Khateab, a Syrian journalist currently working for Channel 4 in the UK, to her infant daughter, Sama. Waad and her husband Hamza, a doctor, met and fell in love during the peaceful protests in Aleppo years ago, and thought they’d be able to lead a free life, independent of the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Instead, the government cracked down with a force rarely seen, propped up by the Russian military and Vladimir Putin himself. A telling scene from the film sees planes overhead dropping bombs, with Waad’s family guessing the nationality of the jets based on the sounds of the explosions.
Jumping back and forth between the formative months and years of their relationship to the film’s present of 2017 and 2018, Waad tearfully shares a uniquely feminine perspective of the violence (the previous films were almost exclusively about men) unfolding around her, showing her infant who her parents were at the best and worst of times. She shares her dreams and nightmares, giving baby Sama – as well as the audience – a look at the idealism in the life they had, coupled with the despair in what they’ve lost. Her narration has the wistful and remorseful tone of classic letters from US Civil War soldiers to their loved ones, somberly written in purple prose because they want an eloquent public record of what is likely to be their final moments of life. It shakes you right to your core.
There are times when the jumps can get to be confusing. For example, one might see a time stamp of a certain month and year, along with a chyron telling us how long the siege of Aleppo has been going on, but then the jump will be to, say, “five years earlier,” then “ten months later” or something similar. Regrettably, it does make it difficult to keep up. But even then, that might have intensified the experience, because the audience really doesn’t know what’s going on day to day, moment to moment. It’s all a tragic blur, a chaotic scramble through the fog and din of a war no one asked for.
The “home movie” feel of the footage only adds to that effect, making the losses seen throughout the film all the more personal and visceral. Waad’s nephew is lonely because all his friends have already fled the city. Moments of levity with the volunteers at Hamza’s makeshift hospital are quickly doused by the news of their deaths. Families rush in from the smoke carrying the bodies of the grievously injured and dead. A mother insists on carrying her son’s corpse out of the hospital, screaming his name lest we ever forget. For all the times Waad tries to spare her daughter the eventual trauma of learning of her past, she never once pulls her camera back. She apologizes to Sama because she’s afraid to die but is willing to do so, even if it makes her baby an orphan, so long as Sama knows what she died for.
There were moments where a reasonable person would want to scream at Waad through the screen. Bombings become so frequent that it’s almost a mundane task for them to run from their top floor Spartan quarters to the somewhat sheltered basement. “WHY ARE YOU STILL THERE?!” I exclaim in my head. When she and Hamza take Sama to visit her parents in Turkey, I shake, “WHY DID YOU COME BACK?!” Even when Waad learns she is pregnant with Sama (and again when baby number two is on the way), I’m basically reliving my biggest frustration with A Quiet Place, wondering why… how someone can think of conceiving children in these environments. Sometimes I wanted to shake her by the shoulder and beg her to do something logical.
And that’s how powerful this film is. That’s the human element that was missing from the aforementioned documentaries. Here everyone watching is truly engaged. In the short space of just over 90 minutes Waad makes you care about herself, Hamza, and Sama so much that you simply wanted to jump into the screen and do anything to make her see reason and get away from this mess to save herself and live for the sake of her children. Sometimes you have to realize the cause is lost and commit to survive. For all the cinematic quality and thematic poignancy of the previous Syria documentaries, none of them connects you to the people living this horror more than this one.
If you’re a fan of musical theatre, you might be aware of Miss Saigon, about a doomed romance set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The second act of the show opens with a song called “Bui Doi,” about the displaced children created as by the conflict. John Thomas sings that they are “The dust of life/Conceived in Hell/And born in strife.” Those lines aptly sum up the experience of watching For Sama and Sama herself, an oblivious, adorable little tot who has no idea the purgatory in which her life began. For her part, Waad Al-Khateab does her best to show her child exactly that. Life isn’t just who you are or what you have. It’s where you came from, where you’re going, and what you leave behind. And in that telling, this film gives us the most personal perspective on the atrocities in Syria that we could ever need.