12 Feb 2020

Movie review: 'For Sama' is simply amazing

From At The Movies, 7:32 pm on 12 February 2020

The Oscar-nominated war documentary For Sama is co-directed by Syrian film-maker Waad al-Kateab and dedicated to her baby daughter. It's deserving of every accolade, says Simon Morris.

Calling Syrian film-maker Waad al-Kateab's movie a 'war documentary' is a little reductive.

Certainly, For Sama is a diary of the events - from 2011 when a student protest against President Bashar al-Assad's regime turned into a deadly civil war - to the destruction of the city of Aleppo five years later.

But it's also an account of the people who remained there in appalling conditions - often mothers, wives and children.

It's the story of a political movement overcome by brute force, it's a coming of age story - Waad had no idea how to make films when she started and ended up walking the world's most prestigious red carpets.

And above all, it's a love story. Waad was a would-be journalist when she began clumsily covering the events of the student rebellion on her cell-phone.

She was drawn to the heroic efforts of the hospitals in Aleppo, treating the wounded despite rapidly dwindling resources. And the most heroic doctor seemed to be the decent, self-effacing Hamza al-Kateab.

Hamza is an unlikely movie-star - a bit pudgy, a bit geeky - but he refuses to quit, no matter what Bashar, his army and later the Russian air-force throw at him and his work.

We see him through the eyes of a love-struck student, of course, but when Hamza and Waad get married it's a moment of light in the middle of a blitzkrieg.

And make no mistake, what happened in Aleppo were war-crimes - the government forces began deliberately targeting hospitals, it seems. So why didn't Waad and Hamsa al-Kateab not get out earlier?

It's a question Waad asks throughout For Sama, without any satisfactory answer, other than the unfashionable phrase these days - "it was the right thing to do".

When Waad has a baby daughter Sama - the "Sama" this film was made, and named, for - it doesn't slow her down.

By 2016, she's progressed from her old cell-phone to a real, professional camera, mostly funded by Britain's Channel Four, who use her reports on their news programmes.

This is the sharp end of "citizen journalism" and what Waad's reports from the front-line may lack in traditional objectivity, they gain in access to some of the most touching, horrifying and authentic scenes of this terrible civil war.

Most of the time, the people Waad films - often with baby Sama strapped to her back - encourage her work. "Shoot this!" screams a distraught mother of a dying child. "You have to show the world".

But sadly, the world mostly stayed out of Syria. Was it because of that cynical expression "compassion fatigue" - one too many world disasters to cope with?

Or was it because the West had been burned too often whenever they butted into other conflicts in that part of the world?

Complicating matters is the presence of Islamic extremists like Isis joining the fight against Bashar. With friends like them, implies this film, it adds one more appalling set of enemies.

The film For Sama is simply amazing - not least because Waad, Hamza and Sama got out with their lives, and that with the help of Channel Four director Edward Watts it was shaped into such a gripping film.

It deserves all the many awards it gets, of course, and it shames the nation where it was shot. How do these people sleep, you wonder?

One of the big questions on the lips of hardly any women I know is "why shouldn't women make big, violent comic-book movies too?"

I mean, no reason at all except, why would they want to?

I might be the one person in the movie-going world who's getting good and sick of all these garish, pointless blockbusters, but I suspect not.

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