For Sama – Living Through the War in Syria

For over nine years, Syria has been a war zone. More than 400,000 have died, over five million have fled and sought asylum around the world, and more than six million have been displaced within the country. Most of that war has been waged on the Syrian people themselves. For Sama is about one of those families, whose daughter Sama was born in the midst of the fighting in Aleppo. It is a love letter to her. 

But what makes this film even more special is that we see it all through the eyes of her mother, Waad Al-Kateab, who chronicled that terrifying period with her own camera and from a woman’s unique perspective. She falls in love, gives birth, and miraculously survives five years of the Syrian conflict. 

Sama pictured in September 2016, in the bombarded east of the city with a placard in response to US presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s infamous gaffe “What’s Aleppo”

An intensely personal film, it is a terrifying look at what it’s like to live at ground zero.  Waad is a “citizen journalist” and her husband Hamza, a doctor at the one remaining hospital in the area, which is being bombed daily. In their last 20 days there, he performed over 800 surgeries and saw unspeakable horrors.

Yet there are also some heart-warming moments – the scenes of their wedding, tending to the garden in their new home, the birth of Sama. But those moments are short-lived.  Living in the hospital, surrounded by screams, blood, and incessant bombing is gut-wrenching to watch. What child should know what a cluster bomb is; what family should suffer chlorine gas exposure. Two scenes in the film will be forever seared in my brain; the first is a mother who has brought her dead child into the hospital and pleads with Waad to film her and show the world what is happening. The second is a small miracle, when a wounded and pregnant woman gives birth to a still-born child, yet the doctors succeed in bringing it back to life.  

Unlike some documentaries, this one is not always polished. Al-Kateab had no grand plan when she started chronicling protests, riots, and then the shelling. She simply shot when and where she could, in the streets, at home, and in the hospital; sometimes using just her iPhone. The images can be shaky, the sound can be funky. But none of it could be more heartfelt.  As al-Kateab explained, “This is not just a film for me—it’s my life.” 

Hamza, Sama and the staff of al-Quds hospital, which Hamza set up in 2012 in east Aleppo.

At the end of 2016, the family escaped to Turkey and then on to England, where Waad connected with filmmaker Edward Watts (Escaping ISIS). Culling through over 500 hours of footage, they have managed to craft a mini masterpiece from the shreds of a country. 

The film has already won Best Documentary at BAFTA (the British Academy Awards) Cannes, and SXSW. It was the recipient of the Freedom of Expression Award by the National Board of Review; a nominee for Best Documentary by the Producers Guild of America; and winner of Best Documentary Feature and Best Director at the British Independent Film Awards. It was also Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards. I, for one, think it deserves to win.  

Despite the awards and the accolades, the crisis in Syria goes on. There are currently nearly three million people under siege, the UN is still debating what to do about it, and for now, there is no relief in sight. For Waad, the best thing that can come from this film is to keep the conversation going.

Photos Courtesy PBS Distribution/Frontline

About Paula M. Levine (39 Articles)
Paula is an award-winning writer, producer, and storyteller who has spent over twenty years producing news, feature stories, documentaries, and web content. Since 2014, she has also taught Writing and Media Relations at NYU in their Masters Program in PR and Corporate Communication. In her "copious spare time", she runs, bikes, and swims; and has completed 7 NYC Marathons.