SYRIA: A filmmaker begins documenting a celebration of freedom in Aleppo but ends up documenting the devastating consequences of that dream.

Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher. Regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 29, 2019

Did you ever wonder what happened to citizen journalists who reported from the Syrian city of Aleppo during the five years of the uprising? This film tells the story of two of them, Waad al-Kateab, a former student who took a film camera to document what initially seemed to be a triumph of freedom, and Dr Hamza Al-Khateab, a medical doctor who joined the uprising and treated the first victims of the regime. That’s how they met. She first saw him through the camera lens, and that view through the lens remains the strongest human bond throughout her film For Sama.

Originating as news coverage

The short films Waad al-Kateab was sending from the Aleppo under siege were some of the most watched news pieces on Syria around the world. She won several awards including an International Emmy for news coverage. For her documentary feature film additional material was used, but her powerful and often disturbingly candid images of the sufferings endured by the people of Aleppo are what makes For Sama a unique expression of motherly love: An ode to freedom, courage, and trust.

The film is organised as a personal story, told by the mother to her daughter.

The film is organised as a personal story, told by the mother to her daughter. Waad and Hamza have both decided to stay after Aleppo is put under siege. When they married, says Waad, Hamza told her, «This is the road we’re taking. It’s a long road full of danger and fear. But freedom waits for us at the end.» In the middle of the bombs falling from the sky over Aleppo, Sama was born. To explain her personal decisions to her daughter, the film’s narration travels back and forth in time: before the siege, after the siege, free Aleppo, Aleppo under siege.

A political structure

But the main structure is a political one and, as such, so is the message to her daughter. Before: March 11, 2015, Aleppo celebrates. Fireworks, people are dancing and cheering, holding flags high in the sky, showing the victory sign. Waad narrates, «We were sure we would win. In rebel Aleppo, we lived in a free country. Finally, we felt like we had a home we were ready to die for. We were ready to put roots into the ground.»

For Sama. DIRECTOR: Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts

After: October 2016, 4 months into the siege. Aleppo has changed. A children’s playground in the city park is desolate, surrounded by empty grey places, perforated by constant shelling looking like giant concrete lances.

Before: Sama’s parents have created a wonderful home for her, with a blossoming bougainvillea tree above the entrance. After: Sama has to spend the first year of her life in the makeshift hospital run by her father.

Offered a way out

In November 2016, 5 months into the siege, just one hospital was left in Aleppo, theirs. Among the people bringing in the victims of the latest attack is one woman, following a man with a child in his arms and persistently calling to the child to wake up. She notices Waad with the camera and screams, «Are you filming this?» Surprisingly, she does not tell her to stop. «Film this!» cries the woman to Waad and then continues to beg her child to wake up. As if seeing through the lens was a way to endure, to shield oneself from the immediacy of the violence.

«In rebel Aleppo, we lived in a free country. Finally, we felt like we had a home we were ready to die for.» – Waad al-Kateab

After the hospital itself was bombed, we see Hamza reporting on the phone. «The situation is very scary; the neighbourhoods of Aleppo are hit with all sorts of weapons. Bombs, cluster bombs, even chlorine gas barrel bombs, and airstrikes. It’s terrifying yet the international community—» he is cut off before he can finish the sentence. «Millions of people watch my reports. But no one does anything to stop the regime,» comments Waad.

Seeing through the lens was a way to endure, to shield oneself from the immediacy of the violence.

The last scenes of the film resemble the scenes of the migrants from Syria coming to Europe on land via Turkey and Serbia. Of course they do, they are the same people. When the regime forces were one street away from the hospital, Hamza received a message through the UN. The regime forces were offering them a way out. They will spare their lives if they will surrender and go into exile. It is hard to believe that we are watching a documentary film and not some futurist dystopia where freedom has the highest price, and rebels are forced to live without a country, with no place to call home.


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Modern Times Review