Review: For Sama (2019), A Love Letter of War and Devastation

There is a scene midway that has a father mixing paints and giving a bevy of excited children a colour each. He tells them each to paint a segment of a bus destroyed by a bomb and to make it vivid. It is a scene I seldom see in war movies which are more interested in showing you mass destruction and extreme cruelty. The scene makes absolute sense because these are people who still crave for a semblance of normalcy in their dire lives and the instilling of hope in their children is still vital, perhaps even more important in those trying times. A while later, the documentary’s director, Waad Al-Khateab, points her Sony video-cam at a girl, probably about five years old, and asks what happened to the bus. The little girl smiles and says it was destroyed by a “cluster bomb”. How in heaven’s name does she know the term “cluster bomb”?

For Sama is a love letter “written” by a mother for her baby daughter Sama (it means sky in Arabic). It documents her confessional hope for Syria and the battle-ravaged city of Aleppo,. It is a 100-minute documentary of unflinching horror and the senselessness of war, made with the sheer passion of a rebel and the undying love of a mother, wanting her daughter to understand why she continued to live in a city when they could die at any moment.

Waad Al-Khateab and co-director Edward Watts have crafted a film with an escalating narrative drive. It begins with a 26-year-old girl entering Aleppo University with rising hope in 2012. With just a handphone, she filmed the fervent protests against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, probably feeling jubilant that a renewed future is close at hand. However, any hope for that gave way to atrocious crimes against humanity as the corrupt regime and its allies refused to yield, pelting the city with ordnance and bombs till 2017 when the rebels finally surrendered.

The story of the death of a city and innocence is told in flashbacks with weary cut and dried voice-overs by Waad, explaining to her daughter why she and her husband Hamza, a doctor and freedom fighter, stayed behind. The film would act as testament and legacy for Sama if she and Hamza don’t make it.

The film is not a downer throughout the runtime. There are scenes of levity as Hamza and Waad find love and get married. In another scene, their neighbour quips that their life resembles a soap opera with explosions and you will feel her joy when her husband surprises her with a persimmon. As much as there are harrowing scenes of death and destruction, there are also many moving scenes of familial and human connections. But it is those unflinching scenes of horror that you will never ever forget.

Waad relentlessly documents everything at ground zero and the hospital, the nexus of suffering. The self-taught journalist shoots everything, never evading her Sony-cam from the horrific scenes of carnage. A scene of two brothers covered in dust, carrying their dead youngest brother to the hospital is particularly heart wrenching. The footages are so in-your-face, so you-are-there that you forget you are watching a film until someone breaks the fourth wall, like how a grieving mother screams into the camera “why are you doing this?” amidst the tragedy of losing her young son. For Sama also has a centerpiece that in my humble opinion is the Scene of the Year – my heart broke into a million pieces and an eternal minute later my heart melded together and leapt with sheer joy. It is a marvellous and magical scene that is not engineered, demonstrating the undying spirit of human beings. You will know it when you see it.

This is a soul-shattering film; it feels epic, yet intimate, also putting you right smack in the midst of harrowing pain. When the house-lights came on, I sat in my seat stunned out of my senses, counting my blessings. Yes, it will do that to you. If you are reading this it means you and I have it a lot better than the people in this film, who don’t all make it out alive.

Like everyone, I have seen my fair share of war movies. In my humble opinion, For Sama dwarfs them all in terms of honesty and authenticity. No amount of gloss, sugarcoating and emotional manipulation can reproduce the fervid wallop the film sends to your very core. Sama may be too young to understand the film, but not us. This is essential viewing and a strong contender for Best Documentary of the Year.

Rating: 5 / 5

Written by: Daniel Chiam