For Sama (2019)

For Sama, a documentary about the last years of Aleppo filmed by Waad Al-Khateab, directed and edited by her and Edward Watts, is the most moving film you’ll see this year.

Staying Alive

by Alexa Dalby

For Sama

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Journalist Waad Al-Khateab filmed the destruction of her city, Aleppo, and her country over two years as both her video diary of daily life for herself and her family and maybe for later use as war crimes evidence. With its many thousands of hours edited now into a narrative addressed to her daughter, Sama, by Waad and Edward Watts, it’s a heart-rending documentary of ordinary people doing their best to carry on with their lives in a situation so appalling that it’s unthinkable to us in the comfortable West.

Over the course of filming, Waad marries surgeon Hamza Al-Khateab. We first see him as a concerned, dissident doctor, then their joyous wedding celebrations despite the bombing, and then the birth of their baby daughter Sama (which means ‘sky’ in Arabic). Hamza grows in stature as things worsen; he opens and runs his own unofficial hospital as bombs rain down ever more furiously and injured civilians are carried in. After one bombing there’s a lifeless young boy in a man’s arms, accompanied by his two uncomprehending dust-and-debris-covered little brothers; an injured woman delivered of her baby by Caesarian with the doctors fighting for what seems like hours to breathe life into the grey, floppy doll-like bundle. You find yourself willing it to come to life.

We see Waad’s friendship with another family, the companionship of her resolutely cheerful friend, and the joy of finding food for their families.

Bombing increases, neighbourhoods and streets are progressively destroyed so that the space open to the inhabitants of that part of Aleppo narrows and narrows until Waad, Sama and Hamza are living in the hospital for safety. Even that hospital is vulnerable to attack. There’s urgent footage as people we have come to know flee within it.

Waad and her family leave temporarily for Turkey to look after a relative, yet they return to Aleppo despite the danger, until they are forced to leave by the government. By this time, there’s nothing left.

Don’t miss this moving, award-winning documentary, either in the cinema or on television.

For Sama premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Best Documentary prize and is released on 13 September 2019 in the UK. It will be shown on television on Channel 4 in October.

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