The Syrian civil war may be the largest human crisis of our age, and with no end to it in sight, it’s only right that documentarians are unwilling to let it rest. The last few years have seen Syria-themed docs all but flooding the festival circuit, forming what the more cynical may deem a subgenre in itself: Almost all of them are made in good conscience and with honest intentions, but that does little to help concerned but daunted audiences differentiate or choose between them. What makes one sincere study of the conflict more essential than another? The answer lies in singularity and intimacy of perspective, and on that front, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s extraordinary war diary “For Sama” will prove hard to match. Simple in concept and shattering in execution, blending hard-headed reportage with unguarded personal testimony, it’s you-are-there cinema of the most literal order.
Impressively constructed from several years’ worth of al-Kateab’s own first-person video footage, and jointly helmed with Emmy-winning British TV docmaker Watts, the film carries viewers from 2012, when conflict escalated in Aleppo in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, to 2016, when the student turned on-the-fly filmmaker finally, reluctantly fled Syria with her husband and infant daughter. It’s to the latter, named Sama, that the entire film is addressed and narrated: a mother’s attempt to explain, or at least expose, the waking nightmare she brought a child into, and might not have survived. Following a dream debut at last month’s SXSW fest, where it scooped both the jury and audience prizes for best documentary, “For Sama” will get a major arthouse profile boost from its official selection berth at Cannes; theatrical play will be followed by television airings on Frontline and Channel 4.
“At that time, the only thing we cared about was the revolution,” al-Kateab says in voiceover toward the beginning; she’s only 26 years old, but her delivery is weathered, wistful, cracked by the strain and terror of living in a war zone. It’s been a long few years: In 2012, al-Kateab was studying marketing at Aleppo University, participating in protests against president Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive dictatorship, unaware that marriage, motherhood and exile were in her near future. It was during this early phase that she began committing her experiences to film, and footage from those student years captures a hopeful, communal sense of uprising, gradually chipped away by the relentlessness of al-Assad’s attacks. Gradually, al-Kateab realizes her camera — or a humble videophone — is her best weapon of activism, documenting atrocities and injustices from which enemies and even allies choose to look away.
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In “For Sama’s” most harrowing passages, audiences might find themselves fighting the same inclination: This is not a film that shies away from explicit images of human carnage, child victims included. Al-Kateab meets and falls in love with Hamza, a dedicated medical student; while others flee the country when the crisis collapses into all-out war, she and Hamza elect to stay, propping up a scrappy volunteer hospital founded to treat the war-wounded. Even in its blood-splashed corridors, al-Kateab’s camera doesn’t flinch from scenes of acute suffering and, occasionally, transcendent rescue: In the film’s single most astonishing scene, the seemingly stillborn baby of a grievously injured mother, delivered by emergency C-section, is brought miraculously back to life, as if by the doctor’s desperate will alone. In the same frenzied surroundings, al-Kateab will eventually give birth to Sama in 2016, in the last months of the couple’s valiant resistance to exile.
It’s the constant tension between danger and determination — al-Kateab and Hamza’s resolve to stay in their ailing homeland versus the war’s repeated efforts to crumble the very ground beneath their feet — that galvanizes her scattered footage into a muscular, compelling survival narrative. As the film jumps between the recent and more distant past, we observe how, in an environment where even air strikes become grimly mundane events, the couple tries and fails to impose a sense of domestic structure on the chaos: We see their intimate, celebratory wedding ceremony, and their touching attempts to make a home in Aleppo before that, too, is bombed. A plant clipping taken from their garden becomes a poignant symbol of domesticity amid upheaval.
Eventually, the prospect of raising a child in such impossible circumstances must be faced: “Now I wish I hadn’t given birth to you,” al-Kateab confesses at one critical juncture. It’s a fleeting, from-the-gut admission of overwhelmed maternal despair that the director (now securely based in London and employed as a filmmaker by Channel 4 News) probably wouldn’t repeat today. This ragged, remarkable act of cinematic witnessing sees a young woman finding her voice — as an activist, as an artist and as a parent — above the crashing, whistling din of warfare. Amid a surfeit of devastating reports from the ruins, it’s one we haven’t yet heard.