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Thread: FOR SAMA (Waad al-Kateab 2019)

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    FOR SAMA (Waad al-Kateab 2019)


    "A young woman finding her voice — as an activist, as an artist and as a parent" - in war-torn Aleppo

    Winner of the BAFTA award for best documentary of 2019. (Ceremony.) It reminded me of REné Clément's 1952 film Forbidden Games/Les jeux interdits. Children in midst the horror of war play strange games to create their own private reality. This film takes us into that world of darkness, and also into the lives of an extraordinary couple.

    For Sama is about the Syrian revolution and those who stuck with it from 2012 till 2016. But primarily it's about two powerful, vibrant personalities, doctor Hamza al-Kateab and the woman who was to be his wife, Waad. They meet as university students in Aleppo. When the siege by the brutal al-Asad regime government came, they stood fast. He organized a hospital. And when that was destroyed by bombs, he built another. She was a student of economics. She began filming the student revolt, and continued, becoming a photojournalist and making this film. Waad and Hamza stayed together and married. She had a baby girl, Sama' (Sky). This film recording these years is narrated to her, because her mother wants to explain what happened, and why they stayed. They did it for her, she says.

    This might seem contradictory. For Sama' they should have left, you might say. Look at all the terrible danger they lived through! It's a miracle they survived. We see the horrors of the war on Aleppo up close, unforgettably. They eventually live in the hospital, Waad and Sama', because their lovely new house has been destroyed, and Hamza is at the hospital all the time. He can't leave. Eventually the Russians have bombed all the hospitals in the district of East Aleppo and destroyed all of them but Hamza's.

    Periodically the film steps back to survey the a cityscape of successively more and more shattered and hollowed out buildings over the course of the four-year siege. You think they must be empty. But then there is a view of a street full of people and you realize there are stages of destruction the population of Aleppo and other besieged Syrian cities meticulously calibrate, knowing how to squeeze the last ounce of survival out of their precarious environment. This is one of the lessons of the film: survival. See the destroyed bus they paint bright patriotic colors and use as a place to play for the kids.

    People arrive covered with dust, looking like ghosts. There are three young brothers. Or there were. Two are alive, and the third brother is dead. Their mother comes, wrapped in black, and carries away her dead boy. "Of course I will carry my beautiful son!" she says. She won't think of anyone else carrying him. The two living brothers cry in each others arms.

    Hamza not only works in the hospital, but is seen helping dig bodies out of the rubble. They retrieve a pregnant woman, and remove her baby by Caesarean section. He appears lifeless, and so does she. But someone shakes and rubs and pats and positively banks on the baby - and it comes to life. And so does the mother.

    Of course there are many tragedies surrounding these miracles. Hamza's doctor colleagues are killed early on. The Russians target hospitals. There is even chlorine. A boy shows a row of eight or ten odd, but striking little cutout paper figures, with line drawing on them, strange, but beautiful. What are they? "They are my friends who have died." (This is when Forbidden Games rose to mind.

    This footage is often rough and blurry but it's nonetheless priceless. It records the Syrian war with a vividness that's rare even though there are many documentaries out of this horrible war. However, a flaw of Waad's film is that it jumps around in time so much one loses sense of the sequence of events, as if it all exists in one continuous period of intense war - as it no doubt largely feels for her; war but also humanity and togetherness. Because we also feel the passion of service here, and warmth of friendship; the couple's friend Afra and her husband and young sons are always around, inseparable friends. Afra is shown as teaching in a school for the kids surviving in this combat zone, set up in the basement so they don't get bombed.

    For Sama is about the children. It looks at them frequently and asks to see how they suffer and yet survive. Waad says more than once she wishes she had not given birth to Sama' - someone says it for her when she's first been born, because all around there are bombs all the time. Waad says she can tell Sama' knows what's going on ("I can see it in your eyes") and she sees that Sama' never cries, and that's the saddest thing of all. You can't dry here; no time.

    Waad and Hamza are a heroic pair, right for each other, people of passion, integrity and honor so strong to the ordinary person it seems foolhardy, however they have this proud record to show their children, including a second daughter, Taima. The extreme case comes when they go to Turkey to see the grandfather, and all roads back to Aleppo get cut off. They still make it, by the only way possible - through the front line. They insist on taking Sama' with them back, and this is rewarded, because at the hospital they're greeted with joy, especially directed at Sama'. For them, there was no question of leaving until Aleppo is evacuated and there is no possibility of staying.

    Now, the family is in London. After a review of key moments from this tumultuous, heartbreaking, stirring film, there's a series of stills, and the last one shows Waad, Hamza, Sama' and Taima - next to a Christmas tree.

    For Sama, 94 mins., debuted at SxSW Mar. 2019, showing in 40 other festivals, and was an official selection at Cannes. Theatrical release in the US in July, in the UK in Sept. Channel 4 and "Frontline." Available streaming. Oscar nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Metascore 89%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-04-2020 at 01:54 PM.


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