“We never thought the world would let this happen,” says Waad Al-Kateab, early into For Sama, a documentary she has co-directed with Edward Watts. Working as an independent journalist, Waad recorded the progress of the Syrian civil war in the city of Aleppo as the euphoria of rebellion gave way to mounting despair. The film alternates between past and present, contrasting moments of everyday life with the desperate final hours of a city encircled by enemies, subject to constant bombardment.
Prior to the outbreak of war Aleppo was the largest city in Syria with a population of 2.3 million, the country’s centre of industry and finance. As the ripples of the Arab spring continued to spread throughout 2011, prompting Syrians to rise up against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, Aleppo was quick to call for its political freedom. By 2013 rebel forces had taken possession of a large part of the city with the the enthusiastic support of civilians.
Waad’s footage captures the carnival atmosphere that prevailed in 2015 when the Assad regime struggled against a wave of popular sentiment. But that feeling proved short-lived as security forces launched assaults on demonstrators, and spread terror with a program of summary executions. One of the most gruelling scenes from this period shows a courtyard filled with bodies retrieved from the river. The victims, all civilians, had each been tortured, handcuffed, and dispatched with a bullet to the head.
For Waad the upsurge of violence coincides with massive changes in her own life. She marries Hamza, a fearless doctor whose previous partner has fled Syria. The union is sealed by a shared commitment to Aleppo, with Waad taking the role of historical witness while Hamza works insane hours treating the wounded. At the wedding reception they dance to Willie Nelson’s Crazy.
The camera records Waad’s delight in their new apartment, which comes with a small garden. It’s not long before a bomb has struck the next door neighbours, heaping rubble on this precious plot. Rummaging through the broken-down plants, Hamza says: “We created something. We planted them. We watered them and they grew. Only to be destroyed by a shell. I hope they’re not all dead.” The garden turns out to be a metaphor for war-torn Aleppo, where people see everything they’ve nurtured being wiped out in a second. As the siege grows more severe, visions of freedom are replaced by the base-line hope that “they’re not all dead”.
When baby Sama comes along the couple move into the hospital, partly for safety’s sake, but also because Hamza is on call day and night. As it happens, hospitals turn out to be among the most dangerous places because they are being deliberately targeted by Russian bombers by way of “breaking people’s spirits”. It’s a charge that has been denied but by the end of the film eight out of nine hospitals will have been destroyed. The only reason Hamza’s hospital remains open to the end is that it’s an improvised affair set up in an abandoned building.
By September 2016, the Obama government had relinquished any interest in Aleppo, and the regime forces, with their Russian and Shi’ite allies, turned up the heat. The film becomes ever more harrowing as the city is reduced to rubble by incessant bombing, and the hospital fills up with dead and wounded. “Even when I close my eyes I see the colour red,” says Waad. “Blood everywhere. On walls, floors, our clothes… Sometimes we cry blood.” Her words are matched by the images on screen.
“In the quiet that follows a massacre,” she says, “I feel like I’m suffocating… I just need to see people alive.” As the viewer can’t ignore this procession of horror, the smallest interruptions are felt as a relief. A friend is ecstatic at the gift of a persimmon; kids play at painting a burnt-out bus; chess players joke that when the king is killed the game is over, but Assad’s long neck is a sure sign he will attain old age. Life is compared to “the daily bombardment soap opera, featuring all your favourite bombs…”
After any of these interludes, with their black humour and brief flashes of happiness, the siege seems even more oppressive. Each bombing raid brings another wave of casualties to a hospital already packed with bodies bleeding on the floor. Hamza recalls that during the final twenty days the doctors performed 890 operations and looked after 6,000 wounded people. In such a predicament, with death closing in on all sides, it might seem that anyone would take the chance to escape to safety, but Waad and Hamza are committed to stay and work till the end, whatever that end may be.
There will be those who say: “I don’t want to see this film. I already know how terrible things were in Syria.” As there’s no particular joy in watching people suffering and dying it would be futile to recommend For Sama to those repelled by bloodshed, especially when it’s real blood, not the Hollywood variety. I confess to being a reluctant viewer myself, partly because a documentary like this exerts an inevitable moral pressure that becomes moral blackmail if the product is not up to scratch. By this I’m thinking of the self-indulgence, sentimentality and shoddy technique that mars so many films – indeed, so much art and literature – about ‘good causes’.
For Sama is not prey to any of these pitfalls. It’s a deeply personal film, but the intimacy established between the filmmaker and the audience makes us especially sensitive to everyone’s efforts to carry on with their lives, coping with the daily threat of sudden death and the sense of creeping doom. We see the way children and parents respond to the pervasive fear, not wanting to be parted even if it is a matter of simple survival.
To watch this film is to understand what lies behind the refugee crisis that has forced so many Syrians from their homeland, confirming that it’s no small matter to abandon one’s roots and start a new life. For those forced to flee the city it’s not the beginning of an adventure, but an abiding source of pain. The tragedy of Aleppo is plain to see for those that have eyes to see it. Beyond the idiocies of populism, nationalism and xenophobia, the greater tragedy is the willingness of so many in the west to view the pain of others as an existential threat to our own sense of well-being. For it’s one thing to avert our gaze from that which we find confronting, quite another to watch For Samaand not feel slightly uncomfortable with those comforts we take for granted.
Directed by Waad Al-Kateab & Edward Watts
UK/Syria/USA, rated MA 15+, 95 mins
Streaming on iwonder.com
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 May, 2020