Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, For Sama brings a personal perspective to the Syrian conflict. The conflict in Syria has been fertile ground for documentary films. Two years ago The Last Men in Aleppo was among the doc nominees. This year The Cave is also nominated in this category. The war going on in that nation is a story of human suffering that needs to be brought to our comfortable lives. For Sama was shown on PBS Frontline, and is now available to stream on PBS.org, Amazon Prime, and YouTube.
Filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab (who shares directing credit with Edward Watts) chronicles five years in her life from the beginning of the revolution against the Assad regime. Hopes were high in those early days, but the regime (with Russian support) soon cracked down. In time the city of Aleppo was under siege, being bombed daily. As the siege gets worse, Al-Kateab films the life people were forced to live, as well as the injury and death that was all around. Much of what she filmed takes place within a hospital trying to do the best it could in such dire circumstances.
But it is not just the story of what was going on in Aleppo, it is also Al-Kateab’s story—including falling in love, getting married, and becoming a mother in the midst of this war. That personal story is highlighted by the fact that she designs the film as a love letter to her baby daughter, Sama. In many ways it is an apologia for the choices she and others have made and for the life that they have subjected Sama to.
As we overhear Al-Kateab explain this war to Sama, it gives us insight into those who have chosen to stay in their home rather that become refugees. The hardships and danger that fill the city are all that Sama has known in her few years. Was it right to have brought a child into this kind of life? That is part of what Al-Kateab ponders as she shares the story with her daughter—and with the world.
But a key part of what she shows us is not only the hardships they deal with, but the human need to which they have dedicated themselves to deal with. This is a film with lots of pain, anguish, death, and destruction. But it is also a film that shows triumphs in the midst of all this. But more than anything else, this is a film about caring—caring for family, caring for neighbors, caring for humanity. The love letter that Al-Kateab creates for her daughter teaches us all about the deep meaning love can have in the midst of suffering.