MA15+, 84 minutes
Dendy Canberra Centre
Review by © Jane Freebury
This documentary is a letter for a little girl who was born during the conflict in Syria and now lives with her parents in London. She grows up on film, smiling occasionally but with that look infants can have, taking it in.
When the conflict began her mother, Waad al-Kateab, had all but completed economics studies at Aleppo University. She became a citizen reporter instead, via the camera on her mobile, sending images of the attacks on civilians to the media overseas. As the rebellion gathered strength, her eye-witness accounts were filmed on a video camera, but lose none of their immediacy.
Aleppo University is the second oldest in Syria, after Damascus University where Assad obtained his own degree in medicine. Students became radicalised after a bombing during the exam period in 2013.
For Sama is shot from a different type of frontline. Not the place from which despatches from war are usually sent, like the location of David Bradbury’s classic 1981 documentary Front Line, but from her home at the hospital where her husband Hamza works.
It was probably just as dangerous, in a hospital in the rebel-held area of Aleppo getting bombed by the Russian planes sent in to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
A new graduate in medicine, Hamza, was one one of a few doctors who remained in rebel-held territory where schools were closed and emergency and essential services non-existent. His first wife had fled the country to safety, but Hamza stayed on, deeply committed to the cause.
The university bombings were swiftly followed by a massacre of handcuffed civilians, a warning to the rebels who were shocked by the lengths the regime would go to stay in power.
As Waad tells her little daughter in the voiceover, she and husband Hamza had no idea their old lives would be swept away that year. Her parents had wanted her to leave Aleppo and return home, but she is ‘headstrong’. She is also rather lively and attractive. Easy to fall for, it’s no wonder Hamza did.
However, for Hamza, the loss of friends made it even more important to go on. Could Waad do that too? She had begun crying while doctors were trying to save the life of a boy. Hamza tells her off, he can’t bear to see her break down. And can’t she tell he is in love with her?
It’s one hell of a proposal, but the marriage takes place with Waad and Hamza pledging to walk the road to freedom together. It’s a Christian wedding, complete with confetti, in a safe room, when they were still sure they would win in the end.
Soon the celebrations are overlain with more destruction and atrocity. Two little boys bring their brother in to the hospital, a life hanging by a thread.
On another occasion, a pregnant woman wounded by shrapnel, is brought in. Caesarean section is performed, then eye-watering attempts made to save the young life. Hamza is by now in charge of what amounts to an ED that takes nearly 300 patients a day.
Searing footage is captured by Waad, but there are also moments of sharp contrast, such as planting a garden, fooling around in the snow, and at impro playgroup in the battle zone. Laughter with friends in the midst of everything, is all the more poignant for its fragility among the horrific realities beyond sand-bagged walls.
The final film is a collaboration between Waad and English documentary filmmaker, Edward Watts. The look has been significantly enhanced by an interesting score, and by atmospheric location shots from a drone that counteract the impact of some erratic but utterly convincing handheld camera.
For Sama has multiple international awards and was one of five films nominated for a documentary Academy Award.
Watching their belief in the rebellion, their desperation as it becomes obvious international support is not on its way, is difficult to watch in light of what we have seen and know since.
For Sama comes with a strong warning, but it is still an amazing document. A sensory and immersive as any war film, filmed and voiced by from the frontline by a young wife and mother.
First published in the Canberra Times on 8 February 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM