For Sama: An astonishing tale of love and horror
These are the opening words of For Sama, a documentary film by 26-year-old Syrian director Waad al-Kateab shot over five years from 2012 to 2016 in rebel-held east Aleppo.
We know from the very beginning that this is no ordinary war documentary. It takes the form of a letter from Waad to her baby daughter, Sama of the film's title and the opening scene shows Sama doing what all babies do, happily playing with her feet.
Then the bombs hit. Everyone runs downstairs and for several suspenseful minutes Waad thinks she's lost Sama.
The theme of this first scene repeats throughout this unique and astounding film, which has received almost unanimous praise and a 100 percent "certified fresh" rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
The whole purpose, Waad says at the beginning, is to tell her daughter why she made the choices she made and why she stayed in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo for five years as it was under ferocious and unrelenting bombardment and siege by the Assad regime.
For Sama takes us through the heady days of the first protests in Aleppo, as Waad explains to Sama the decision she and Sama's father, Hamza, made to fight for freedom against a dictatorship that has ruled Syria for over 40 years.
The protesters are shown writing and chanting slogans on walls that they never would have dared to utter before. Regime soldiers come to attack the protesters but no one realises, Waad tells Sama, what the regime would do to stay in power.
What exactly it was capable of becomes clear from the beginning of the movie when Waad and Hamza watch as the bodies of hundreds of people, most of them shot at regime checkpoints simply for being from opposition-held areas, are pulled out of the Quweiq River which runs through the centre of Aleppo in 2013.
One of the many things that makes For Sama unique is its ability to portray the joys of everyday life while the unspeakable horrors of war are going on.
|One of the many things that makes For Sama unique is its ability to portray the joys of everyday life while the unspeakable horrors of war are going on|
It shows the growing love between Waad and Hamza, a doctor who makes it his mission to treat people injured by regime forces as the situation gets worse and worse.
When Waad and Hamza get married, for a moment it's possible to believe that we are seeing any Arab wedding anywhere in the world. It's only when the camera shows the deserted streets below that we know that we are in a besieged city. It introduces us to two of their friends, nurses at the hospital, and shows them making fun of each other for being too afraid of the regime's airstrikes.
Jokes and humour are everywhere in For Sama. However, neither of these nurses survives the war.
Al-Kateab's camera captures exactly what airstrikes mean for children and mothers and some of the most painful scenes in the film show women looking for their children in hospitals after airstrikes, and when finding them dead, refusing to accept reality. At one point, Waad finds herself envying a mother who died in the same airstrike as her child. At least, she says, the mother didn't have to bury her child.
Hope and freedom
But there is no shortage of hope. Children are shown painting and pretending to drive a bombed out bus as their teachers look on. In a scene that made the entire audience gasp in shock during a London preview of For Sama, Hamza and his team did an emergency caesarean on a pregnant woman, managing to bring a baby to life after shaking it for what seemed an endless amount of time.
Waad and other parents keep singing to and playing with their children as bombs fall around them.
We are introduced to ways of thinking difficult for anyone not in a war zone to fully comprehend. While the relentless airstrikes keep going, one child cries, but it is because his family are thinking of leaving the city not because of the danger the bombs represent.
This mindset is explained elsewhere in the film, as Waad says that the revolution for the first time gave her a feeling of freedom and made her feel that she was part of a country, but it is still very difficult to fathom for people who have never lived through war.
Challenging propaganda and indifference
While they were attacking east Aleppo, the Russians and the Assad regime mounted a very vigorous propaganda campaign smearing the people left there as "Islamist extremists", "al-Qaeda", and "terrorists".
In For Sama, al-Kateab only briefly mentions the Islamist fighters who made up a portion of the rebels present in the city at its fall.
This contrasts starkly both with the Russian narrative and the endless column inches devoted in the Western media to the issue. But from the perspective of someone inside east Aleppo, whose life is far more endangered by Russian and regime missiles rather than the intolerance of Islamists it makes perfect sense.
What makes For Sama particularly relevant and timely today is the regime's continuing assault on Idlib province.
The world didn't hold the regime or Russia to account for what they did to the civilians of east Aleppo and today they are behaving in the exact same way in Idlib, bombing civilian house, hospitals and schools.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has described the world's reaction to this as a "collective shrug."
Thousands of Syrians are going through the same experiences, traumas, and hopes that Waad, Hamza, and Sama went through while people across the world stopped paying attention a long time ago.
The Assad regime today would like the world to forget what it has done to Syria, but what Waad al-Kateab has done, with this amazing film showing joy, hope, humour, and love amid unspeakable brutality, is to force people to stand up and take notice, while telling a story about the very essence of humanity.
For Sama will be on general release in cinemas in the UK on September 13.