To Watch “For Sama” Is To Bear Witness

“To try and live a normal life in this place is to stand against the regime.”

Those are the words of Waad al-Kateab, a young filmmaker and mother, who chronicles her life in rebel-held Aleppo in her extraordinary new movie, “For Sama,” which airs tonight on FRONTLINE. 

In her film, al-Kateab documents the daily acts of defiance that took place in Aleppo over the span of five years as the city was relentlessly bombed by the Syrian and Russian militaries. 

When a regime is hellbent on destroying you, to survive is to resist. And that’s what al-Kateab and her husband, Hamza, do. They fall in love, they get married, they make friends, they give birth to a little girl, they raise their daughter, and care for the sick and wounded. Their lives are both ordinary and utterly heroic. Hamza works as a doctor in one of the city’s few remaining working hospitals, and he and his team treat hundreds of bombing victims a day, absorbing more trauma in their hearts and minds than is possible to fathom. 

Through it all, al-Kateab bears witness, filming over 500 hours of footage, which were later turned into an hour and a half of storytelling. The movies takes us from the early days of protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the six-months in 2016 when the city was under siege.

“I keep filming. It gives me a reason to be here. It makes the nightmares feel worthwhile,” she tells us. 

The movie depicts how life around you changes in war, and how the world you once knew —  your school, your family and your safety, which you took for granted — becomes unrecognizable and fully inhabited by the violence of war. When the protests begin, al-Kateab is studying economics at university. She starts filming what’s happening in the streets. The uprising feels dangerous, but it is mostly charged with excitement and optimism. 

“None of us had any idea how our old lives would soon be swept away,” al-Kateab says. 

The movie shows how her old life disappears and how she goes from a young student taking part in anti-government protests to becoming a so-called “rebel,” living in a bombed-out city and hunted by her own government. 

“We never thought the world would let this happen,” al-Kateab says at one point as the camera surveys Aleppo’s destruction from above. 

The city is razed. And, if you zoom in, individual families are also smashed to pieces. 

Boys as young as 10 and 12 arrive at the hospital, carrying their toddler brother. His body is lifeless. The brothers choke back tears, learning he’s dead. Later, they cry over his bloodied face and kiss it gently. 

More than once while watching the movie, I thought of the words of former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein:

“Most of our political leaders are morally weak, short-sighted, politically motivated and mediocre,” he told the New York Times in May. “It used to be that abuses were called out and many were stopped. Human rights violators had something to fear. But today, the silence of those public officials is astounding; their hypocrisy sickening. And, I fear, they are no longer able or willing to defend the human rights of all people. And, as a result, the worst human rights offenders are able to act with impunity.”

The consequences of this play out in al-Kateab’s film over and over again, with children paying the biggest price. 

“Children have nothing to do with this. Nothing,” one of the doctors says, stunned by the death of yet another young child. 

As the siege wears on in 2016, the horrors grow worse. Fifty-three people are killed when a Russian bomb strikes the hospital. 

“Targeting hospitals breaks people’s spirits,” al-Kateab says. Still, her husband Hamza finds a new location and the doctors continue to treat patients. But the dead are everywhere and the water gets cut off. 

“We’re crying out to the world: Help us,” al-Kateab says. But the barrel bombs and the chlorine bombs and the cluster bombs and the shelling continues with almost no response from the international community. 

It soon becomes clear to al-Kateab that: “We only have each other.”

But, that community of people surviving the war together is so rich with love. And this is what makes the film so remarkable. It captures the daily horrors of war as well as the exquisite beauty of being alive, even in a place like this.  

The source of most of the beauty in al-Kateab’s life is her baby daughter, Sama, for whom she made the movie. Her hope was to explain to Sama, who was born in Aleppo during the war, the reasons for why she and Hamza stayed in the city, even when it meant putting her in great danger. 

“In rebel Aleppo we lived in a free country,” al-Kateab says. “Finally, we felt like we had a home we were ready to die for.”

Image: Waad al-Kateab filming the ruins of a building destroyed by bombing in besieged east Aleppo, October 2016. FRONTLINE/“For Sama”

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).