In ‘For Sama’, Waad Al-Khateeb takes the world into her home in a city under siege

A still form For Sama.

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.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.