When Waad al-Kateab’s parents say she is headstrong, even reckless, she responds: “I never knew what they meant until I had a daughter.”
Dedicating a film or book to a loved one – or worse, telling a story to someone who wasn’t there to witness it – can seem a clichéd device. By its titular description, For Sama, a documentary film by the award-winning journalist al-Kateab and film-maker Edward Watts, should be just this: al-Kateab is behind the camera, and her voice narrates the footage in Arabic (with English subtitles) to her baby daughter, Sama. “What a life I’ve brought you into. Will you ever forgive me?” she asks of her newborn.
But as al-Kateab’s shaky footage records her life through five years of violent, unpredictable uprisings in Aleppo, Syria, a documentation of unrelenting love is profoundly touching. The film begins with citizens protesting President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, and follows the Arab Spring to the siege of eastern Aleppo by regime forces in 2016. al-Kateab made the film to explain to her daughter why she and her husband, Hamza, chose to stay fighting for freedom in Aleppo rather than flee for safety. It’s a decision fraught with fear and uncertainty, and underpinned by courage. al-Kateab’s headstrong nature is subtly – but defiantly – present throughout the film.
When we first meet Hamza, a man al-Kateab describes as having “a constant smile on his face”, he is a newly qualified doctor and not yet married to al-Kateab. When his first wife urges him to flee the city alongside her, al-Kateab tells us, he stays to fight for the resistance. He sets up a hospital from scratch in the city’s eastern region, where there have been no state-run hospitals, security services or schools since the area was freed from the regime. Later, it becomes the last-standing hospital in the region; in just 20 days, its workers receive over 6,000 patients and perform 890 operations.
The hospital room, where blood floods the plastic-sheeted floor, is the setting of the film’s most tragic moments. But it’s the glimpses of tenderness that al-Kateab finds in more domesticated settings that triumph. United by a dedication to fight for freedom, Hamza and al-Kateab wed, and we watch as they dance together in a small living room, to songs which ring out “louder than the bombs falling outside”. When Sama is born, al-Kateab’s joy is undercut by anxiety. “The happiness you brought was laced with fear,” she tells her daughter. Green-eyed and giggling in their bunker beneath the hospital, Sama is sublimely innocent to the warzone that surrounds her, while her mother worries that supplies of nappies and baby formula will run out.
al-Kateab visits her friend, who, with her husband and their children, has also chosen to remain in Aleppo during the siege. She joins her friend in their small kitchen, as she cleans rice to drain out the insects that have infested it. She can’t let her husband and children see – they won’t eat it if they know its original state – but it’s all the food they have left. Later, her husband appears with one single sweet persimmon fruit, a lone symbol of what remains of resistant life in Aleppo; he gives it to his wife, who is overjoyed. These small moments of affection pepper the film with warmth, al-Kateab’s storytelling a beacon of light among the rubble.
It can sometimes feel as though al-Kateab’s camera leans in a little too close to fresh corpses and blood-covered children. But any supposition of moral misjudgement is set aside when we see how her subjects react to the lens. When a distressed woman, howling over the tiny form of her dead son, glances over her shoulder and sees al-Kateab with her camera, we expect her to wave the lens out of her face. Instead, she screams, “Film this!”, demanding that al-Kateab records her trauma, insisting there be proof of the atrocities committed so that her truth endures. When al-Kateab attends anti-government demonstrations, she watches other protesters filming on mobile phones; a means of proving the protest really existed, even when the government denies it ever happened. Film, For Sama suggests, can be a force for truth.
And for little Sama, whose parents distract her from the sound of explosions by singing songs about chicks and making duck noises with their surgical masks, this film will remain a document to her parents’ unrelenting courage, as well as their love for her. “Your only crime is that your mum’s a journalist and your dad’s a doctor”, al-Kateab tells her, in a voice that suggests the devastating inanity of it all.