It has been a year since one of the most essential documentaries of the 21st century, For Sama, premiered in UK cinemas. In a revolutionary 100 minutes, it changed the entire world of documentary making.
Waad al-Kateab, now 29, documents everything in this journey through uprisings, airstrikes and tragedy during the Syrian civil war. All the footage is filmed like a home video, but Aleppo is no home to raise a child after the Assaad regime and Russians combined forces to fight back against the uprisings. Sama is the child in question and this film, Waad says, is for her.
This deeply human documentary, produced, filmed and co-directed (alongside Channel 4’s Edward Watts) by the young citizen journalist, is the most profoundly intimate and striking depiction of the Syrian conflict. It has been a year now which begs the question, has anything changed?
Sama, I’ve made this film for you. I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did.Waad al-Kateab, For Sama
Waad, speaking to Vogue Arabia only weeks ago, says no. “Nothing has changed in Syria,” she tells them. “It’s still happening.”
The Oscar-nominated film made history by becoming the BAFTAs’ most-nominated feature documentary ever. It won one (Best Documentary, 2020) amongst many more well-deserved awards across worldwide awards shows. At 2019’s Cannes Film Festival it ended in a full five-minute-long standing ovation from the audience. Film Threat described it as ‘one of the most important films you will ever see in your life’. When it really hit the mainstream in October with its release on Channel 4, the reactions on social media were just as emotional. For a film that sparked so much anger and so much heartache from audiences far and wide, why has the momentum seemingly died down?
The film starts with the image of a young, very young, Waad al-Kateab. Watching the footage, it is unfortunately easy to forget how young she and her friends were when they became such powerful advocates in the fight against the regime. At 18, she leaves her family home to study in Aleppo.
With that, we are thrust right into the carnage. There is a deafening sound and smoke everywhere. The hospital has been hit. The hospital, which we soon learn, is one the group of young friends set up themselves. The film is not chronological. It doesn’t have to be. This is Waad’s story. Her life. The life so many still struggle through.
The smoke rises. Waad shouts for her daughter, trying to find her in the chaos. In such a terrifying point of a mother’s life, she keeps filming.
I keep seeing you down there like that boy and me like his mother.
Even now, hospitals are still being bombed. Despite being safe in London, she is still fighting for the end of the conflict and the protection of healthcare facilities.
Sama was found safe. She survived Aleppo and the family finally and reluctantly evacuated in December 2016. The same cannot be said for all of Aleppo’s children. There are some points in this film that audiences will really struggle to watch. But, if you turn away, you turn away from the realities of war.
One specific scene stands out in the most harrowing, unforgettable way.
September 2016, 3rd month under siege. A tiny boy’s soot-covered, bleeding body is carried into the hospital. His two young brothers follow, sobbing. The missile had hit dangerously near their home to disastrous consequences. It is almost impossible to watch two children’s entire lives and minds shattering before your eyes. The screams of his mother are chilling. She takes her son’s broken body in her arms, shouting “Don’t take my son from me. I wouldn’t forgive you if you do”.
Waad keeps filming, always.
She never avoids being honest in how terrified she is. She speaks directly to Sama. “I keep seeing you down there like that boy,” she says. “And me like his mother”.
Even in war, however, life goes on and life is still celebrated. In filming everything she sees and everything she lives through over five years of conflict, Waad’s camera often finds the handsome face of a close friend of hers. Hamza. In 2012, he has recently graduated as a doctor and, like the young journalist and their group of friends, he is an activist taking part in the early uprisings which would spark a full-blown civil war. Little do either of them know, Waad will also catch the beginnings of true love.
Of course, the wedding is filmed. Amongst such trauma and carnage, this scene is a remarkable celebration of life and love and the freedom they are fighting for. Waad swears that the sound of the songs they sang “were louder than the bombs falling outside”.
In this unforgettable, profound 100 minutes we watch and hear about first dates; the first sparks of an uprising; make-shift hospitals; a wedding; a war and a blue line on a pregnancy test. It is clear that Sama represents hope for a new beginning in Syria. Hope is something that Waad holds even when, in the 5th month under siege, she finds out she is pregnant again. She is terrified. “I don’t know if your brother or sister will ever open their eyes”. But, she keeps filming and the hospital keeps going. They still fight, even until the very end when they have to leave.
It is one of the most important documentaries you will ever watch.
This brings us back to the earlier question, why has the momentum seemingly died down?
Seemingly is the keyword. Waad, when speaking to Vogue Arabia, feels guilty. But, the reception of her documentary birthed another project: Action For Sama. A campaign to put a stop to the targeting of healthcare facilities in Syria, which still goes on. From panel discussions to Zoom workshops, the Twitter account @ActionForSama is frequently updated with news of the amazing things the campaign is doing, all in the film’s name. Waad and her family now live in the UK and she still works as a journalist for Channel 4, producing stories on justice and Syria. Not only does she fight for Syria but for refugees worldwide, telling Vogue Arabia “I felt that I was in a position where I could fight for different issues”.
Syria still remains a country battered by conflict and after years of fighting the health facilities still intact are struggling under the immense, but unreported, pressure of COVID-19. al-Kateab, for one, keeps persisting and For Sama’s power cannot be disputed. Its power is eternal because it has undoubtedly lit an ever-burning spark in the hearts of many individuals who will never forget what they watched. With Action For Sama, reports for Channel 4 and her constant and valiant efforts to fight for peace in Syria, Waad al-Kateab and this film remain undeniably integral in rallying awareness.
Words by Jessica Sharkey