It’s hardly the most rigorous filmmaking in the world, but the footage on display in For Sama – the work of Syrian journalist Waad al-Kateab, who started filming the dire situation in Aleppo in 2011 and basically didn’t stop – is just undeniable. Her work a document of life under siege, an epic from the perspective of a mother who started out as a radical activist, and then channelled this energy into working as a documentarian for news outlets around the world. And her perspective is extraordinary.
Al-Kateab’s conceit is that she’s making a film that directly addresses her daughter, Sama, explaining her decision to keep her in Aleppo – a decision that put her life at risk. She recounts her marriage to Hamza, a doctor, and their time spent in hospitals, doing their best to help those affected by the conflict. A mixture of airstrikes from Russian jets and attacks from Assad’s regime meant they were never short of patients, not to mention the fact that they were trying to avoid being killed themselves.
All of this information is available on BBC news, so the perspective al-Kateab provides is that of first-person, sparingly edited experience. Her intimacy with the community lends her unfettered access – most of her subjects either seem to forget the camera is there, or are clearly happy to be filmed. Many scenes play out like regular home videos – al-Kateab’s wedding, playing with baby Sama, a friend being gifted with a rare fruit by her husband – only with a constant background soundscape of explosions and gunfire.
It’s these moments, contrasted with the unbearable images of children dying on the operating table, that make For Sama work. It invites us to consider nothing but the human cost of war, and the division between people’s dreams and their harsh reality. There’s an remarkable moment, similar to one in Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, where a baby is pulled out of a woman’s stomach. It’s completely grey and isn’t breathing. The doctors try everything, eventually holding it by its ankles and beating it. After a long, long moment, it starts to cry. Another one comes when a woman – a family member of a victim in hospital – angrily asks if al-Kateab is filming, then urges her to continue doing so, to show the world what’s going on. The film is an incredible one, almost by accident, as there’s some prominent music cues and bits of editing that feel too bluntly manipulative. But it is incredible.
For Sama does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.