Waad al-Kateab, Hamza al-Kateab
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…a singular experience… intimate and shattering… a monumentally moving testimony.
Documentary filmmaker Waad al-Kateab chronicles her time in the Syrian city of Aleppo in For Sama. Beginning in the period following the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in Egypt and Libya in 2011 and then jumping forwards and backwards in time throughout.
She begins by documenting the job of her friend Hamza, a young doctor at an East Aleppo hospital, as he goes about his daily routine treating the growing number of victims of the Assad regime’s shelling and aerial bombardment. After a time, Hamza declares his love for Waad and the two marry. Soon after that, in an attempt to claw back a semblance of domestic normalcy, the pair move into a partly-damaged house which they clean up and decorate, embracing marital bliss.
As time progresses, the Russian air force begins bombing the city and taking out civilian locations. Eventually, eight out of the nine hospitals in the city are destroyed. Hamza’s hospital is badly damaged, and a substitute building is found which is untraceable on existing maps. This means Russian bombs would find it difficult to target. It’s here that the film’s heart is exposed, in intimate minutiae. We sit quietly with the close-knit volunteer nurses and doctors during periods of shelling as they huddle together and crack jokes, making small talk and laughing to break the tension. We watch as many of those same people are randomly, pointlessly killed in the bombings. We gaze unflinchingly as wounded civilians are brought into the hospital: families who were trying to run, children who were in the wrong place when a shell hit, their slight ages intensifying the immense and heartbreaking tragedy of it all.
In 2002, English filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) made a cinema verite masterwork called In This World, which was a clear-eyed response from Winterbottom to the UK immigration debate of the time. It documented the journey of two Afghan asylum seekers as they made the crossing through a number of perilous and tragic situations, all in an attempt to get to a new life in London. By letting the viewer walk in the main character’s shoes, it prodded and disturbed with a gut-punch conclusion that demanded the experience be reckoned with. It presented you with a highly realistic depiction of something that’s at the heart of a politically contentious issue, it demanded you empathise or at least merely comprehend, the magnitude of the plight of the illegal immigrant.
In For Sama however, the ever-vigilant self-documentation of Waad al-Kateab places us squarely in the real. All those feelings of certainty that come with actors performing a story evaporate. We are there as silent witnesses. The understated first-hand narration of Waad al-Kateab, is constructed as a letter to her daughter Sama, telling the story of why she was uprooted from her homeland and why her mother did her best to stay amidst the carnage, the gassing and the shelling.
It’s a singular experience to even see reportage this intimate and shattering. Waad al-Kateab has birthed a monumentally moving testimony to her and her husband’s humanity, deep conviction and unending compassion for their fellow Syrians – and for their daughter.