January 27, 2020  (Web Review)

For Sama

(2019) 99 min. In Arabic & English w/English subtitles. DVD: $24.99 ($250 w/PPR). PBS Video (www.education.shop.pbs.org) SDH captioned.

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

Filmmakers Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s Oscar-nominated documentary paints a harrowing picture of the Syrian civil war during the siege of Aleppo as Russian warplanes rain death down upon the beleaguered city. Narrated by Waad as a personal letter to her daughter Sama, who has seen “nothing but war since the day she was born,” the film shifts back and forth between the five years leading up to the 2016 siege and the increasing horrors of the siege itself. For Sama is a bit sketchy early on about the love that blooms between Waad and a doctor named Hamza, who refuses to leave Aleppo to return home to his wife. In the proverbial blink, Waad and Hamza are married (with no further mention of the other wife) and Waad gives birth to Sama. In 2012, Waad and Hamza were protestors, part of a larger uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime. In 2016, the pair are working in the last makeshift hospital in East Aleppo. Over one 20-day period, the team performs 890 operations and receives more than 6,000 wounded patients. Waad’s approach will be jarring to some: she interweaves graphic footage of terribly injured, dying, and dead men, women, and children (at one point, the mother of a deceased child screams “why are you filming?”) with cute scenes of baby Sama. Eventually, however, the viewer comes to appreciate these brief moments of happy humanity as the doomed rebellion—with victims bombed, shot, and gassed—grinds toward defeat. One incredible moment captures this perfectly: an unresponsive baby is pulled via C-section from the abdomen of a wounded mother; the baby’s chest is pushed, and the infant is held upside down and shaken, rubbed down, and slapped—all to no effect—in a long, long scene that is absolutely heartbreaking right up until the moment the child miraculously sputters and comes to life (the mother survives as well). Ultimately, For Sama becomes a powerful testament to the Syrian people’s courage, resilience, and ability to retain their humanity in the face of unspeakable horror. Highly recommended. Aud: C, P. (R. Pitman)