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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.