Living in Sweden, I certainly remember the refugee crisis of 2015. Along with Germany, my country was one of the most welcoming, while others did nothing. In the European Union, we still live with the consequences of what happened and how to deal with member states that don’t respect the union’s values. Still, we all tend to forget that the ”refugee crisis” wasn’t something that was done to us. The people who suffered the most were the refugees themselves. This lauded documentary is one of the very best tackling the subject.
Moving to Aleppo in 2009
We begin in Aleppo, the Syrian city at the center of the whole story. This is where Waad Al-Kateab moved when she was 18. The year was 2009 and she was going to study economics. Then the Arab Spring happened. Anti-government uprisings starting in Tunisia spread throughout the Arab world in 2010, resulting in a civil war in Syria. The Ba’athist regime had been ruling the country since the early 1960s and Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship responded to protests with violence. Everything deteriorated and several armed groups joined the uprising, including an increasingly powerful ISIS; then, Russia joined the action and there was more bloodshed.
As for Waad, she met a doctor she fell in love with, Hamza, and in 2015 gave birth to a daughter, Sama. Throughout the early years of the war, Waad documented her life in Aleppo and the continuing heartbreak at the hospital, reporting for British media. In 2016, as government troops supported by Russian fighter jets took control of the city, she and her family were finally able to leave Aleppo and head for Britain.
A letter to Waad’s daughter
It’s a bittersweet ending. Waad and her family don’t want to leave Aleppo, a city they love, but life under Assad is not possible to survive, especially since the dictatorship considers Hamza an enemy who helped those who tried to topple Assad. Near the end of the film, there’s an intense sequence where the family is driving out of the country hoping not to be caught by Assad’s soldiers; we all feel the relief they’re experiencing when they finally leave Syria behind. There are few heroes in the Syrian conflict; the Russians, Assad’s regime and ISIS are all bad guys.
This film is not primarily about politics though, but the victims of the war. Waad’s film is a letter to her daughter, always addressing her, showing a future adult Sama what it was like to be a mother in a war-torn country, watching fighter jets from your window attack the city and constantly be prepared to run for cover. Her camera is present at the hospital where we see parents mourn their dead children. Those who do live on grow up under absurd circumstances; there’s a memorable scene where several kids play around in a bombed-out bus, their sense of imagination still alive in spite of the ongoing horror. The film has incredible footage capturing the war, but also some sense of normalcy in such a dangerous place, even a sense of humor among people living in Aleppo.
For Sama is full of shocking, emotional and tragic moments; there were times when I hesitated to keep watching because it takes such a toll. But then we see something like a miraculous rescue of a pregnant mother and her baby, delivered through an emergency C-section… and we can barely believe our eyes.
In other words, there’s hope in all this despair. Editors Chloe Lambourne and Simon McMahon did an impressive job turning all that footage into a compelling story that makes the refugees as relatable as your next-door neighbor.
For Sama 2019-Syria-Britain-U.S. 100 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and photographed by Waad Al-Kateab. Directed by Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts. Editing: Chloe Lambourne, Simon McMahon.
BAFTA: Best Documentary. European Film Awards: Best Documentary.
Last word: “At the beginning of the filmmaking, I was so desperate, and I didn’t know if the film would create any change, and I didn’t want to have any expectations, especially when I had just left [Aleppo]. I lost everything. I didn’t know if I could stand up again. I started to do the film because I felt like it was the only way for me to keep going. I did it just to be a record, even to put in one library and to say this is one story of Syria. Our hope is that the film is not just a film. People can watch it, but also it’s a tool for change. It can push people to do something.” (Al-Kateab, The New York Times)