A documentary usually addresses a worldwide audience, but in rare cases, it can be simply a letter written to one specific person. Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts decided to choose the second option as the form for their work. Waad al-Kateab’s commentaries are all addressed to her newborn daughter Sama, who is, of course, also a symbol of the next generation and to a future in their country. Simultaneously, For Sama lets everyone know of the reality behind the curtain of official media information: continual attacks on Aleppo, eventually leading to the total destruction of parts of the city. On a personal level, the question of responsibility, also of guilt, is evoked concerning Waad al-Kateab’s decision to stay at the side of her husband, one of the last doctors and surgeons to still resist and work.
The film is generally chronological but also integrates flashbacks from past years, moments still characterized by hope and excitement for the future. The sharp contrasts between the different time periods let the spectator perceive in just how short a time the situation completely degraded to the systematic extermination of the population. Among other detailed information, we learn that the Russian airstrikes were especially targeted at hospitals, destroying 8 out of 9, with the aim being to break the spirit of the rebellion.
Waad al-Kateab reveals her daily life in a very personal way, from her beloved garden to the floors of the hospital, completely covered in blood, where dead and wounded bodies lie side by side toward the end phase of the attacks. For personal safety, Al-Kateab lived with her child in a small room inside the hospital, protected by sandbags against bullets. Only rarely did she see her overworked husband. Her main goal was to let her child understand and maybe even accept, at some point in the future, her reasons for remaining in this permanently life-threatening situation. Filming gives her a reason to be here, to document what the remaining hospital staff and the resistance, in general, are fighting for. She also reminds the world that nobody in Aleppo’s resistance population had imagined that the international community would let such slaughter happen without intervening.
The sharp contrasts between the different time periods let the spectator perceive in just how short a time the situation completely degraded to the systematic extermination of the population.
Through personal video footage, she remembers her own youth, growing up in quite protected circumstances, from her early years imbued with a strong will to follow only her own decisions. Now she presents images not normally shown by public media, such as injured or dead children’s bodies. Five years earlier the revolution began. On April 29th, 2012 students painted slogans opposing the regime’s corruption, injustice, and oppression on the walls of the university. Muslims and Christians stood together, deciding it was better to die than to go on living without dignity. In the early days, the regime’s media just denied the existence of the protests, but the protesters’ cell phones spread their images all over the world. Hamza, later to become the husband of the filmmaker, is both doctor and activist. Her filming a portrait of his various activities brought the two together. Soon after, on January 29th, 2013, tortured, handcuffed, and dead bodies were found in the river. It became clear to everybody that the regime would no longer have any qualms about smashing the rebellion in all possible ways. Hamza also had to decide whether to leave Aleppo together with his first wife or to continue working in the hospital. In those days only 32 doctors still remained in East Aleppo. After the destruction of his official hospital, his staff managed to open an improvised one, not marked on official maps and therefore relatively safe from becoming the next target.
By September 2016, Aleppo had already been under siege for three months. We see the first images of Al-Kateab’s daughter Sama. During that same time, the first of her close friends start to get killed. Simultaneously, extremist Islamic movements try to set themselves up in leadership positions in the rebellion. As a result, the initial intentions and political goals of the rebellion, simple requests for justice and democracy, get transformed and manipulated. The early protesters now become victims attacked from both sides, the regime and the extremists.
Al-Kateab does not avoid offering very private moments of weakness, doubt, and fear when outside of her small room the fight for each life is going on in the hospital. But still, she is convinced that leaving would mean weakness in the face of the growing barbarity. Perhaps the most astonishing sequence in her account is a voyage, together with her husband and Sama, to visit her grandfather and family for a moment. But there is no doubt that they want to go back to Aleppo, and the return is an even riskier project than the departure since the only remaining street has been totally destroyed. Finally, back with Sama, Al-Kateab’s child becomes a symbol of survival and the fight for justice among the hospital team, celebrating her presence in November of 2016.
The last phase
Food and water become rare. No fruits or vegetables are available anymore. 300 injured are brought to the last remaining hospital every day. Hamza is now the only remaining doctor. The forces of the regime draw nearer. Chlorine gas is used. Those who want to switch sides and surrender also get killed. There is nothing to do or to hope for anymore. Hamza even proposes to Waad that they send Sama away, to give the child a better chance of survival. He himself risks becoming a major target since, besides his medical work, he is known for his daily accounts of the atrocities on international radio and television channels. His observations were seen by 60 million, but not one of them has reacted to stop the slaughter.
In December of 2016, they make sure that all of the 6000 wounded of the last twenty days get out via an escape route guaranteed by the Russians for those still remaining. A dubious offer, of course, to be accepted warily, and indeed, some ambulances come under fire. As one of the last groups, the filmmaker’s family also crosses the border alive. Waad takes a plant from her wrecked garden with her, to find a new place for it.
These small details, for example, a mother’s joy at finding one of the last remaining fruits or a session of storytelling for terrified children, enrich this painful documentary with a breath of poetry and beauty, the last remaining signs of humanity. In a few rare sequences For Sama also escapes from narrow interior spaces, offering panoramic aerial views of the general destruction.
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