There is a scene in 'For Sama' where a gravely injured little boy is carried into a makeshift hospital in Aleppo, Syria by his two young brothers, who are around ten or eleven. They try to peek into the crude operating theatre as the medical personnel work on him. Eventually, the doctors confirm that the child is dead. The two boys, covered in the grey ash from a bomb blast, are still in shock. As their brother's body is wrapped in a shroud, the boys quietly sob, kiss his tiny face and stroke his hair. This is one of many moments during the documentary where my heart broke and my eyes teared up. Alongside Kurt Kuenne's 'Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father', it's one of the saddest things I have ever seen on film.
'For Sama' documents the uprising and subsequent siege of Aleppo, spanning from the start of the revolution in 2012 to the fall of the city in 2016. Waad Al-Kateab began the documentary as a sort of video diary - a record in case she didn't make it out alive - and it was picked up as citizen journalism and then transformed into a film that allows moments of beauty among its parade of horrors. The film, co-directed by Ed Watts ('Escape From ISIS', 'The Mega Brothel'), an Emmy-winning film-maker for Channel 4 and ITN, slips backwards and forwards through time, but we begin at the beginning and end at the end.
Nothing cuts through the propaganda more incisively than human stories. The revolutionaries were spurred on by other movements in the Arab Spring and many of the protests were filmed on peoples' phones. This is how Waad began in 2012. An 18-year-old marketing student when the uprising began, she shouts to her friend Hamza as they head to a protest where he is providing medical support, all whilst filming on her mobile phone. Her footage and reports would occasionally run on Britain's Channel 4 during the Syrian civil war. Five years later, she was forced to leave an unrecognisably devastated Aleppo. Along the way, she married a courageous doctor and gave birth to the girl whose name appears in the title.
"At that time, the only thing we cared about was the revolution," she says during the sunny opening scenes. Then the violence of the Syrian government against its own people intensifies. Many flee and leave Aleppo, but Waad and Hamza stay to operate the only hospital left in the city. At its worst, the doctors perform 890 operations in one day with no running water. By the close of the film, Waad's voice is clipped and wary.
Poetically narrated (variously as an explanation, apology and love letter) to her daughter, the film is painfully intimate - you experience first-hand what Waad is describing. You hear and see merciless suffering. What is it like to live in a war zone? To get married in a war zone? Or cook food with friends with no rations? Or be a mother as tank shells smash into your neighbour's houses? When we normally see reportage on the crisis in Syria, we never see this side. The people affected become a monolith. It is an ode to the medium of film, and Waad's usage of it, that we can see our everyday lives simply transposed onto a war zone. It's incredibly powerful.
Over 500 hours of footage must have been a nightmare to edit and the film-makers have said they were forced to eliminate some of the more horrific footage, but what remains is appalling enough.
As she watches the Russian planes carpet-bombing her neighbourhood, Waad manages to get across the fact that all rules of war - insofar as such things exist - have been abandoned here. Hospitals are not merely caught in the crossfire; they are specific targets. Eventually, chlorine gas is used on the citizens. Several scenes are simply jaw-dropping - men warming their hands over an unexploded rocket that has crashed through a wall; children cheerfully listing the various types of weapons fired at them by the Russians. In the most harrowing scene, doctors perform an emergency C-section as artillery shells make rubble of surrounding streets. The baby, who seems dead, is hung upside down, his back smacked and chest massaged until, after agonising seconds, he breathes noisily into life. It embodies a core theme that runs throughout the documentary: children are the most vulnerable victims in this carnage, but also amazingly adaptable to the horrible conditions (it might be overstretching to say the film has a message of hope, but it does, at least, speak to the human capacity for survival).
Over 500 hours of footage must have been a nightmare to edit and the film-makers have said they were forced to eliminate some of the more horrific footage, but what remains is appalling enough. Relief comes from the warmth of the relationships at the heart of the narrative and from the odd moment of visual transcendence. We sense Waad learning her skills as she goes along. Early sequences are jerky and simply framed. Towards the close, she makes use of a drone to convey the post-apocalyptic destruction that has taken over this historic city.
'For Sama' is a tough watch, made even harder knowing that the neighbouring city of Idlib is currently under siege in the same way. It is also a beautifully edited and narrated piece that needs to reach as many people as possible, since we have no perception of what the Syrian war was like via traditional news media. This is an important, must-watch film.