Part way through the gut-wrenching chaos of the Syrian civil war portrayed in the new documentary For Sama, something takes place that might be called a resurrection. I won’t go into further details, but it should be noted that the event is clearly meant to be not only a literal recording of a (possible) miracle, but a deeply symbolic moment as well—a sign of bright hope in the midst of utter darkness.
The Syrian civil war, according to the United Nations, has caused the deaths of close to half a million people since its start, amidst the upheavals of the Arab Spring, in 2011. Writer, producer and co-director Waad Al-Kateab, married to a doctor and mother of their young daughter Sama (hence the title), brings some of this terrible reality home. For Sama was primarily filmed—its hand-held camera always trying to capture what matters most—in the city of Aleppo, where opposition to the Assad government brought on significant retribution by both Syrian and Russian air bombing. Because of this, lives are under daily threat, and Al-Kateab’s husband, who plays a major part in the unfolding story, regularly risks his life in his care of others.
The end of the film brings change, and some hope, however small, in the courage and tenacity of two families who take their stand as long as they can. But the conclusion also spawned questions, which include the possible miracle mentioned above. In the midst of violence, death or any traumatic chaos, we strive to make immediate sense of what’s happening around us. One way to do this is to filter and arrange events in a coherent narrative. Which begs the question: while respecting and honoring the work of a filmmaker risking her life, is it possible that some truth (small or large) could be lost in the midst of creating that narrative? Does the film sufficiently acknowledge the staggering losses (on both sides), or does it even have that moral duty, given the personalized and subjective nature of the film?
These are some questions to think about after watching this riveting and difficult film, which has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary of 2019. --Dave S.