Reviewing documentaries is a very different beast to reviewing fiction. There are different considerations to be taken when attempting to weigh up the positive and negative qualities of a documentary film. Attempting to review For Sama is a whole separate challenge. Where to start with this compelling, horrifying, masterful movie? Director Waad Al-Kateab filmed many different years of her life in Aleppo. At first, as a student at the city’s university, where she was part of the initial student uprising against Asaad’s regime. It was a time of rebellion, hope and comradery. What follows is not only an increasingly more fatal and oppressive time for citizens of the city but also a new chapter in the director’s life begins when she discovers she is pregnant. Raising her baby in Aleppo as Russian and Syrian airstrikes shatter the homes and lives of countless innocent civilians, Waad fears for her child’s life. Her husband is a medic, who does what he can for endless victims, often in makeshift surgical theatres and hospitals. The film is a brutal and horrifying watch, confirming once again that children remain at the heart of war’s mercilessness. As the regime strategically bombs hospitals and civilian territory, life in Aleppo becomes increasingly more fragile and claustrophobic. The film drifts back and forth between earlier scenes of hope and happiness and later scenes of murder and bloodshed. Al-Kateab’s camera is unflinching, refusing to turn away from any scene, no matter how traumatising. Mid-way through the film there is one scene that nobody could ever forget. One relentless scene in which hope and horror unite is a perfect summarisation for the unimaginable experience of fighting for survival in Aleppo in 2016.
The film breaks up the horrors its camera captures with intimate moments between mother and daughter, all the while the director’s voice-over tells of her deep fear for her daughter, born into a situation so inhumane and with so many odds stacked against her survival. The film, although first and foremost a love letter to the director’s daughter, is also a love letter to a city, to its architecture, to its residents, to its dead and to its memory. It’s a film about womanhood; a welcomed change to the many films to have come out of the Syrian refugee crisis that are made by and explored through men. Despite the horrors it contains, For Sama is in many ways majestic and beautiful – its score for example is subtle and sensitive. For Sama is the type of film that changes you; not only through its extreme documented violence and gore but through its humanity, its miracles and its hopefulness. Its political message is blunt and angered and yet the film remains as personal as it is political. No 500 word review can really do justice to this astounding piece of work which deserves all of the accolades and praise it is currently receiving. I simply can’t emphasise enough just how powerful it was to sit through For Sama. With its emotional use of voiceover, its resilient lens and its central themes of family and home, it’s easily one of the most important films of 2019.
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