A group of children are gathered for the first birthday of Sama, the daughter of journalist Waad Al-Kateab and her husband, Hamza. Their chubby little fingers clutch brushes and paints of various bright colours, and to celebrate Sama’s first year on the planet, everyone is going to paint a bus all the colours of the rainbow. Later, the older children will gather on the bus and pretend that they’re off to school! It’s a lovely moment to witness, tarnished somewhat by the environment that surrounds it. The bus is a burnt-out husk occupying space in war torn Aleppo, Syria. The adults are trying their best to add a splash of joviality and even a kind of normality to these tiny lives. This is For Sama, and it’s a documentary that will resonate with you for a long time.
Directed, with the assistance of Edward Watts (Escape from ISIS), written and narrated by Al-Kateab, the documentary is a love letter to her daughter, one that begs for forgiveness of the titular child. Made entirely from footage gathered over five years by Al-Kateab, the film tells the director’s journey from being an 18-year-old marketing student to hardcore political activist, who also just happens to be a mother. Her reason for constantly filming is that she’s worried how her plight and the rest of Aleppo is being perceived and dissected outside. Therefore, the only way to not turn away from a situation is to have a camera fixed on it permanently.
Depicting the uprising against the Assad regime, For Sama is as confrontational as some might expect and it’s absolutely no wonder that the film has been nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards. It grabs the viewer by the scruff of their neck and asks them how much they’re willing to tolerate. Whether it be the sight of two boys no younger than 12 cradling their deceased friend, whose only crime was playing outside before an airstrike, or watching the painful stoicism of a man trying to comfort his grieving wife whilst carrying their dead child, For Sama is a heartbreaking experience. Do you feel uncomfortable? Good, because so does Al-Kateab.
Throughout the film she questions the choices she has made to find herself in each situation. Sure, not fleeing Syria when she had the chance may be seen by some as a missed opportunity, but then she and Hamza bring a new life in to the world. Sama is as cute as button and as airstrikes reign down, she is seen to be laughing away as she’s entertained by her parents and their friends. And therein lies another issue for Al-Kateab; her daughter is showing no fear, so is the routine destruction now normal for her? In hindsight the story is obviously told, but it doesn’t change the impact it has.
Perhaps to relate to the audience that the people of Aleppo are just like them, and that they too once had normal lives, Al-Kateab focuses on the moments of happiness that present themselves in the dark. Moments like Sama’s birthday, or the night she and Hamza get married and the jubilation is so loud is drowns out the noise of even more gunfire. These are not just people who make up the background of a 2-minute news report on Channel 7. These are simply people.
This is bold and passionate filmmaking and whilst the world argues over whether Jo Jo Rabbit or Joker are worthy of being called cinema, it would be a shame to see this film disappear under the radar. This is essential viewing. See it as soon as you can.
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‘For Sama’ is in limited Australian cinemas from February 6.