Documentary film “For Sama”, which won the Golden Eye award when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year and was also nominated for Best Documentary Oscar on last Monday, presents to us a harrowing personal chronicle from Aleppo during the first five years of the Syrian civil war. Although it is tough and difficult to watch at times for good reasons, the documentary is a powerful piece of work on the whole, and it also adds another significant human perspective to the ongoing war like many other notable documentary films about it.
The documentary is mainly based on the archival footage clips shot by co-director Waad Al-Kateab in Aleppo during 2011-2016, and the opening part of the documentary shows Waad and her baby daughter Sama going through another air strike on their rebel area. As soon as she and others hear that terrifying sound of air strike, chaos ensues while everybody is running to any safe spot, and then the mood eventually becomes quieter for Waad, Sama, Waad’s doctor/activist husband Hamza, and several others around them.
Their perilous ongoing situation is intercut with how things have gotten worse in Aleppo beyond their imagination during last five years. Not long after the Arab Spring was started in 2011, thousands of people came out on the streets of Aleppo for their protest against the brutal and oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Waad, who was studying economics in the University of Aleppo at that time, willingly joined demonstrations like many other colleagues and friends of her while also beginning to record small and big incidents with her video camera. When the situation subsequently became more volatile in the city, many people started to leave, but Waad chose to stay as sticking to her political belief, and so did many of her friends and colleagues including Hamza, who was married at that time but then had a divorce as his first wife decided to leave unlike him.
While their city was constantly shaken up by frequent air strikes everyday, Waad and Hamza kept trying to devote themselves to their common political cause. In one abandoned building, Hamza and his several friends/colleagues established one of the few remaining hospitals in Aleppo, and they busily handled and treated hundreds of seriously injured people everyday while also struggling with many setbacks. For example, their resources were usually scarce as their rebel area was mostly blocked the Syrian government army, and, above all, their hospital was one of the major air strike targets.
At least, Waad and others around her tried to remain hopeful, and the circumstance seemed to get a little better around 2015. After coming to realize how much they loved and cared about each other, Waad and Hamza had a small private wedding ceremony, and she was certainly delighted when she found that she got pregnant several months later, but, around the time of Sama’s eventual birth, the situation got quite worse for everyone in the rebel area of Aleppo. As blocking the area more than before, the Syrian government army also did more air strikes with the full assistance of the Russian Air Force, and Waad and Hamza had no choice but to leave their small residence along with Sama and then began to live in the hospital instead.
As the siege continues during next several months with no end in sight, everyone in the rebel area of Aleppo comes to lose their hope day by day. Because his hospital is the only remaining one in the area, Hamza and his colleagues keep trying to go on as before, but they are only reminded of how desperate the circumstance really is, and he and Waad are quite devastated when the hospital is suddenly destroyed by an air strike during one evening. Although they fortunately happen to be away from the hospital with their daughter at that time, some of their close colleagues are killed during that air strike, and they come to have more doubt on whether they will really be able to endure and prevail to the end.
While the documentary often strikes us with a number of grim and devastating moments of loss and despair including the one involved with a mother carrying her dead young son alone from the hospital, there are also little brighter moments which show us how life struggles to go on in Aleppo. In case of a family close to Waad and Hamza, they seldom lose their spirit even though they are well aware of their worsening situation, and there is a little amusing moment involved with one persimmon, which has been a luxury in the city just like many other fruits and vegetables.
In the end, there comes a point where Hamza and Waad do not have any other option except leaving the city just like many others around them. They try to remain as long as possible while helping others leaving the city, but their turn eventually comes, and we get a brief tense moment as they cautiously go through checkpoints along with their daughter.
Overall, “For Sama”, which will be soon released in South Korean theaters, distinguishes itself with its raw intimacy and harrowing emotional power, and it will surely give you some more understanding and empathy on what many people endured during that harsh and dangerous time in Aleppo. This is indeed one of the best documentary films of last year, and I assure you that its last moments will haunt your mind for a while after it is over.