In her recent powerful documentary For Sama, Waad Al-Khateeb takes into the human struggle in Aleppo, a city under siege. She does not show us the fights on the frontlines; nor she does film the destruction of historical and monumental architecture sites as Aleppo’s Citadel and ancient souks or the collapse of the minaret of its historical mosque. Rather, she takes us to more intimate places, to show the every day life; filming her own bedroom, her friends’ living room, and the kitchen whilst her friends Afraa is cooking.
As Syria, after nine years of intensified conflict, has gradually disappeared from news, Waad brings us back to the start, to retell the story again. In her seminal, sad and ground-breaking documentary, she calls all of us to witness, to remember, and to open our eyes to the toll of war on civilians, that is still happening to date whilst the world is silent. Her documentary is a remarkable contribution to the history of war in Syria, and to the history of wars more broadly. It humanises and individualises the struggle of ordinary civilians in their everyday ordinary urban life.
Most of the documentary is filmed in a hospital where she and her husband and daughter Sama lived. Sama, the name of their daughter, means ‘Sky’ in Arabic; often a symbol of hope, but in the case of Aleppo, also a symbol of death, as planes dropped bombs on the city from the sky. Sama is also a metaphor for the close relationship between life and death in a city under siege. Al-Khateeb herself gave birth to Sama in a hospital where many people lost their lives.
You don’t know when to collapse whilst watching For Sama. When watching the death of the city? When watching the massacre of civilians, where people were killed and put in rows in the school courtyard to prepare their funeral? When civilians try to find dead bodies in the river? Each scene is a portrayal of loss, grief and bereavement. Each scene you think, “This pain is unbearable to watch”, and one’s own’s systems fail with a shock to the brutality and violence against humanity.
In one scene, two young boys arrive to the hospital with their injured brother covered in dust. Soon, they know that he lost his life. The two young boys cry, and weep alone. They come together as angels hugging their brother, kissing his forehead. It is the last goodbye. You don’t know here as an observer what to do. How could these two young boys bare all this? Waad zooms here on their faces, on their hands as if she is scanning not only the surface, but what is behind.
In the following scene, a mother dressed in black enters the hospital asking if someone has seen her son Mohammed. She finds a covered dead body and realises from the face that it is her son. The mother holds the body and leaves the hospital walking in the streets and weeping saying, “This is my son, don’t take him from me”. The hospital staff asks her to bring the body back – but she refuses. Waad, as mother, knows what this woman is doing, and tells the staff to let the woman do what she wants (this sentence by Al-Khateeb is not translated in English in the documentary). These are the last moments together. The time for a goodbye.
The woman keeps walking but as if her mind is somewhere else. She weeps in the ruined streets holding her son saying, “My son is dead, my darling is dead”. You only feel that you are walking with her, and you struggle to imagine how all this pain could be real. You would think that this scene in itself would move the world, make someone take action to stop the war. But no.
Al-Khatteeb keeps strong and firm position of the camera – never shaking, never hesitant, never broken or fragile. You only think that the camera that she is holding is part of her body – a piece of Waad. But saying this, she, as she narrates the documentary and appears in some of the scenes expresses the pain inside.
“I am suffocated Sama,” she tells her daughter. “I keep seeing you as that boy; and me like his mother.” She thinks of the questions that all Syrians think of each day, and she sees Sama dead. Will we die today? And who will die first?
When she delivers Sama, she holds her new born baby, but then cries painfully, and deeply, as if questions of guilt, regret, sadness are flooding back, as if all the suffering, loss and images of destruction have been seen. She asks in the film her daughter if she will ever forgive her.
All images of dead and injured bodies mar the minds – specially for Al-Khateeb who witnessed and filmed closely this tragedy. “Even when I close my eyes, I see the colour red. Blood everywhere. On walls, on floors, on our cloths. Sometimes we cry blood,” she adds.
Language collapses when one wants to describe what has Syrians witnessed and endured. Words might fail to put the struggle and suffering, the loss and bereavement that we endured. But when language has failed, Waad Al-khateeb brings all this pain, all this loss, all this struggle together in her camera. It is a foundational war documentary showing the horrors of wars in our times. It is seminal and will be talked about for generations.
You wonder how there could be any beauty within the time of war – but Al-Khatteb shows beauty amidst this catastrophe. The first house she moved to with her husband, the moment she knows she is pregnant, and the beautiful changing seasons in the city, when it snows and when it rains. But most importantly the beautiful people who remain, their dear friends including Afraa and her kids.
Al-Khateeb, deals with the people in the documentary with huge level of sensitivity. And she tells the story from the bottom-up, getting us so close to peoples’ emotions, hopes, fears and aspirations. For instance, she films Afraa’s son whilst staring at the void on the ruined streets from their terrace. She goes to chat with him and asks him what he would do if his parents decided to leave the city – he says he would stay in Aleppo by himself. Suddenly he collapses in tears, as a broken sparrow whilst hiding his face in between his arms. What was going inside his mind? How much this young boy has suffered, how much destruction has he witnessed? What a childhood?
In her documentary, Al-Khateeb, unlike mainstream journalism, does not provide analysis of the political situation, but simply paints a picture of ordinary activities and ordinary scenes, something so much needed to break the image that was built about Syria and turned us to a dataset and numbers. She brings faces to the struggle, laughter, tears, smiles, hearts and souls.
Al-Khateeb narrates the story in the film, quietly, but with a fragile voice - her calm voice brings it all together whispers in our ears: this is our story. She vanishes in most of the film as she stands behind the camera to bring these stories and testimonies to us. But in some scenes, she wants to be part of the scene, to document herself especially when she was eventually forcibly displaced to leave the city. She re-visits the first house she moved to with her husband, films herself there.
“No words can describe what I am feeling now,” she cries, and says, “We don’t want to [be] forced to flee out of our city.” She gets a plant from her garden that will grow out of Aleppo. As now Sama, and her family grow out of place. The time has come for the family to leave. Collectively, the film is about a war on home.
Memory is at the heart of the documentary – it opens with photos of young beautiful woman when she was 18, a decade before making the documentary, and it closes with flood of senses from the early days of the peaceful protests in Aleppo, and images that Al-Khatteeb has seen since. When she leaves Aleppo and delivers her second daughter to life she brings her so close to her and says: I thought I lost everything after leaving Aleppo, but now I can smell Aleppo in you.
Many writers described the documentary as a dedication to Sama. But it is not. For Sama is a dedication not only to Sama but to all the children of Syria, to all the children of the world. The road of struggle is so long, the price of freedom is so high.
If you have not seen For Sama yet, do so. Never forget our pain.