Who wants to talk about Syria, or hear more about it? Probably not many, as the conflict there seems to have been going on forever, the great stream of refugees from there has influenced political events in numerous places and now Syria is being carved up, it seems, in blithely made arrangements by the United States, Russia and Turkey.
Well, a powerful documentary about Syria that has won more than 30 awards, including the Prix L’Oeil d’Or for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival, cannot be ignored in this time of Syria fatigue and is here recommended as a must-see.
For Sama (Tuesday, PBS, 10 p.m. on Frontline) is not easy viewing. It features a lot of injured, dying or dead children. Yet it is superbly made, powerful and unique in its power. You can see why the awards have piled up.
Made by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, it is really Waad’s first-person account of the siege of Aleppo. The Sama in the title is her baby daughter, whose care and safety was Waad’s primary concern while she and her husband, one of a handful of doctors left in Aleppo, tried to survive. Much of her husband’s work was treating children injured during the shelling of the city, and some of them die. The camera does not flinch in showing the horror, and Waad never flinches in trying to keep her baby daughter alive.
Children are at the centre of the story, and it opens with photos of Waad as a teenager, about to go to university. She’s barely more than a child herself, and her parents remind her that she’d been a reckless, hard-to-control child. They suggest she behave with care at university.
What follows is a brief account of Waad falling in love with a doctor, Hamza al-Kateab, while at university and becoming pregnant while a portion of Syria – and Aleppo in particular – was rising in revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At first, their life seems to exist in a blissful, idealistic state of chaos as a country shifts gears. There are smiling people, heady with expectation and sureness about things changing for the better.
What follows after that is where the intensity and truly universal core of the story becomes apparent. Waad’s hand-held camera is focused on tiny Sama, her cooing over her daughter interrupted by the sound of bombs dropping and the space being filled with smoke and debris. As she and her friends try to flee to a safer place, she can be heard asking constantly, “Who has Sama?” and the intimacy between mother and daughter is primal and viscerally apparent. The purpose of the film, as Waad herself explains, is to tell Sama why her mother and father stayed so long in Aleppo: She was just one of many children who needed succour and support.
That support is largely the work of Waad’s husband, and the camera does not shy away from depicting the children he treats, horribly injured, their bodies mangled in the bombing. By keeping Sama alive, the mother and father are not just caring for their first child; they are seeing her as representative of a personal and political future. As idealistic as that may seem, the viewers buys into it completely. The film is deeply sobering. It is a reminder that as the crisis there shifted, al-Assad, with the help of Vladimir Putin’s weapons, decided to target civilians and hospitals, using barrel bombs and chlorine gas, to finish the war.
But those larger decisions are not discussed. Their impact is shown. Instead of debate and rage, the film focuses on one child and her mother trying to stay alive, while all around them, children are blown to smithereens.
One can see why For Sama has had such a powerful impact at film festivals and accumulated awards. It has the arc of a scripted movie, getting narrower in scope and reaching a crescendo when some remaining citizens of Aleppo surrender, as they are invited to do, but are shot at anyway. There is crucial tension when the film shows footage of a dead child, and Waad says, “I envy this boy’s mother. At least she died before she had to bury her child.” In the end, you will find out if Sama survived this horrific episode and if, from the bloodstained debris of Aleppo, she, or she and her mother, escaped.
Getting there is a breathtaking, heart-in-your-mouth journey, a reminder that what happened in Syria is about parents and their children, not about the carving up of territory to suit male dictators.
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