On the one hand, I hesitate to call For Sama a movie, because there is no artifice, no script, no second take. There is a woman called Waad Al-Kateab, who shoulders her video camera and films the day-to-day chaos as she finds it. She lives in Aleppo, Syria, in the middle of a war zone, and nothing and nowhere is safe. If there are no Russian planes dropping bombs on the neighborhood, there are the snipers outside to worry about, or food shortages, blackouts. She is surrounded by friends who have not yet left, maybe because they feel rooted there, maybe because they are more afraid of leaving than they are of staying.
But then I’m Hollywood-trained, with a backlog of principles about how a story should be told, and that makes me a bit of a fool ,and I should let fresh voices and fresh voices in. Because of course For Sama is also very much a proper movie, tearing down the prejudices of what I think a proper movie should be; it’s a documentary in the here and now, a condensed 90-minute tragedy from a lot of footage, both intimate and historical, filmed over more than a year. A documentary does not get any more immediate than this. There are some drone flyover shots, but everything else we see through Waad’s eyes. The camera is not always steady, the dialogues are sometimes inaudible, but how can the audience think in those categories if Waad Al-Kateab has to run for her life, camera on her shoulder? What do cinematic terms mean if you make a video diary of an impossible situation where every entry could be your last? You might get buried with your footage if a bomb hits the house you grew up in, and that would be it. No movie.
I have a breathless, stunned kind of admiration for Waad Al-Kateab. She starts her film in the midst of the Arab Spring, happy and excited to go and study law at her university, the camera already an extra limb on her shoulder. There is war all too quickly, but she is adamant in staying as much as she is in filming. There is a man, one of her best friends, Hamza, who is one of the doctors who is willing to stay and to take care of the civil casualties of the war. He and his team perform emergency operations while Waad holds the camera on the family and friends of the victims. Some of them are children, their faces covered in dust, blood, and tears. Waad is intrusive, yes, and some of the people resent her for prying an answer or an emotion out of them when they would really rather sit down and weep, or for filming the dead and the mourning, but I think that Waad does the right thing in getting those faces, those fatal events, on tape for all to see. Some stories cost a whole lot to be told, but they have to be told. We, the so-called civilized West, do not find it necessary to intervene.
I also admired how Waad keeps a degree of normal life amid all that war and death. Hamza and Waad fall in love, they get married, and have a daughter called Sama. It’s all there on tape, thrown into stark relief by the chaos surrounding them. Who would fall in love during wartime? Who would be so crazy as to get pregnant and raise a child in a war-torn city? Stubborn people is who. Waad and Hamza insist that it is their city, their place, and their life – because it is. They juxtapose the deaths in this film with a birth. It is nuts if you think about it, and yet it’s some form of ultimate resistance. There were nine hospitals in Aleppo; eight of them were official ones, and all of them were bombed. Hamza found an empty building and put up his hospital there. It was spared because it does not figure as a hospital on any map.
Sama means sky, and it’s Waad’s wish that one day, there are no more vapour trails of bomber planes, no more smoke columns from burning buildings, but a clear, blue sky to look up to. There are incredible moments when Waad sings loudly to Sama so her singing is louder than the plane engines overhead. Between a year-long war and a virus, I know what I would choose. Some people have to deal with both.