The gripping documentary, “For Sama,” spares a moment for levity when Waad al-Kateab films her husband, Hamza al-Kateab, as he tells a joke common in their home city of Aleppo, Syria: If you want to be safe from the government’s attacks, head to the front lines. Hospitals, like the one Hamza runs, are no guarantee of sanctuary — in fact, places that promise respite are the most frequent targets of the government’s bombs.
The two, friends and allies, were living in Aleppo when Syrians began to protest against the government in 2012. Alight with the promise of revolution, she picked up a camera, while he opened a hospital in the rebel-controlled eastern part of the city. For five years, al-Kateab continued filming. By 2016, they were married, and the hospital was the only one left standing through the Russian and Syrian airstrikes aimed at silencing the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian government.
“For Sama” compiles al-Kateab’s footage from inside Aleppo, as she and her husband lived among citizens under siege. With bracing intimacy, she uses voice-over to address the film to her daughter, Sama, born in January 2016. Sama’s first year of life is marked by rains of bombs. She doesn’t cry like a normal child, al-Kateab notes, wondering what her daughter will think of her choice to remain in the city.
Though al-Kateab films her family, “For Sama” eschews sentimentality. As a journalist and a doctor, she and her husband occupy professions noted as much for their sobriety as for their service. When al-Kateab turns her camera on others, she focuses on the graphic, brutal, stomach-churning effects of al-Assad’s assault. Bombs crush Aleppo; al-Kateab and her British co-director, Edward Watts, do not hide the impact.
Such footage has immediate and obvious journalistic value. As the Syrian government’s bombings of schools and hospitals continue, “For Sama” provides a coherent account of a humanitarian crisis from the perspective of the wounded and displaced.
But just as crucially, and perhaps more compellingly, al-Kateab’s reflexive filmmaking provides an uncannily relatable example of the mundane experience of war. Profound bravery exists alongside profound ordinariness; friends still gather for dinner, they still tell their children bedtime stories, they still have to cook and clean and sleep.
The activists of this film, including al-Kateab herself, don’t speak in the language of philosophers or politicians. Their quotidian aspirations — to build a garden, to send their children safely to school — demonstrate the brutality of the government’s response, but they also invite viewers to picture themselves in the shoes of these modest political dissidents. Unselfconsciously, “For Sama” prompts audience members to ask themselves: How long would you defy tyranny if your world was coming down around you?
Not rated. In Arabic, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
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