In the course of my community work and Human Rights studies, I’ve read heaps of reports and have spoken with many refugees. I’ve avoided watching any footage from the war zone, though, something I believe to be a reflection of my privileged existence in a country that’s not at war. Second-hand trauma has been a real struggle for me, so I felt I didn’t have to see films to understand the atrocities happening around the world and, in this case, in Syria. However, this changed when Waad Al-Kateab’s honest and heartfelt documentary For Sama came out. It was that intimate and personal experiences I knew she would share that drew me in. I had to watch it.
And yes, I was sobbing within the first two minutes, but it was one of the most important films I’ve seen in a long time.
The conflict in Syria started in 2011 when peaceful, pro-democratic demonstrations turned violent after President Bashar al-Assad began killing protestors. The civil war continues to this day, with violence regularly targeting civilians. In a narrative framed as a letter to her oldest daughter, Al-Kateab shares her experience of this war as a woman, a wife, a mother, and a fierce citizen journalist determined to expose and tell the world what is happening when the news fails to do so.
The footage is raw and visceral, dust-covered and bloody. She doesn’t shy away from showing and exploring the grief of a mother finding her son killed, or children brought in with severed body parts and hollow eyes that have seen far too much for their tender years.
But there are happy moments, too. Al-Kateab shares how she fell in love with her husband, a doctor who was in charge of the civilian-run hospitals during the Siege of Aleppo. She also opened up about their wedding and the day she received the positive pregnancy test and discovered she was pregnant with Sama. Along with that, we see the wild and bold hope that she and her friends have as they go from peacefully protesting to building hospitals while under fire.
I was struck by the laughter these women shared in the face of so much trauma and uncertainty. But their laughter was defiance; every life they saved, every decision they made to seize the moment and hold on until the next, flew in the face of Assad’s government. It made me ask myself how far I would go. If I were in their place, when would I have decided enough was enough? When would I choose to stay and help others, and when would I decide that it’s time to flee? There are no answers, of course; we never really know until we’re placed in a similar situation. Waad Al-Kateab and her family chose to stay until the very last convoy, always determined through it all to help everyone get out alive.
Al-Kateab’s faithful reporting gives us insight into a war zone, reminding us once again of the importance of citizen journalists who pick up their camera and film on the go to ensure that people see and remember what’s happening there. This is the grittier facet of storytelling: bearing witness.
Al-Kateab’s For Sama is not only an important memoir but a call to action, sending a message to remember and respond.