Aleppo Dec 2016

by Geoffrey Churchman

It would be difficult to produce a documentary that is more dramatic and absorbing than this one — filmed by a resident of Syria’s second largest city Aleppo during the years of the civil war since 2012, but mostly during the siege which lasted 6 months between June and December 2016.  This year it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

Waad Al-Kateab is a Syrian, albeit a hazel-eyed brunette who could easily pass for a European, although wears Muslim garb in public whether by choice or necessity. She went to Aleppo as a student at the age of 18 in 2011 to study marketing at the university.  That was the year the uprising began and her footage filmed with smartphones shows rebels celebrating their taking charge of the city in 2012.

The situation for Aleppo’s inhabitants, while not good from that point on, became grim in 2016 when the Russians, invited by Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, began bombing rebel hideouts, in the process causing considerable damage to civilian buildings.

The situation became progressively worse. Waad, by now married to a doctor she met at one of the hospitals, has a baby, Sama, born during the the war. Sama becomes Waad’s focus during the siege (hence the title) and she is increasingly committed to making this visual record of what it’s like to live in a city that is slowly being destroyed and in which the necessities of life become hard to obtain, including the means at the hospital to fix up those who have been too close to bomb and shell blasts.

It’s probably not a spoiler to say that Waad, husband and Sama managed to get out of Aleppo at the end of the siege when the Russians gave them an ultimatum to do so.

Although full of reality (the unscripted type) drama and pathos, even here there are some lighter moments.

The film includes exterior shots, including bombs exploding, but it is predominately life behind sandbags and reinforced concrete.

It’s not the only such movie made during the Syrian Civil War to be released: another released last year is The Cave which profiles Amani Ballour, a female doctor in Ghouta who operates a makeshift hospital nicknamed “the Cave”.

Even more dangerous for the filmmakers was City of Ghosts, a 2017 Arabic-language American documentary film about the Syrian media activist group ‘Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently’, made surreptitiously while the city of Raqqa was under ISIS occupation.

The politics presented in For Sama are deceptively simple: the good guys are the rebels who try to overthrow evil dictator Assad, but the evil Russians come to his aid.  In reality it was a far more complex situation with a mix of armed factions at various stages fighting each other; few if any of which (with the exception of the Kurds) deserved any trust and these factions had no qualms about committing atrocities.  At various times the whole situation became a mix of proxy wars with foreign powers — including Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US — either supporting the regime, or one of the insurgent groups.

Unsurprisingly, Israel, which has a border with Syria, declined to take sides — it has no love of Assad, but it was a case of ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.’  Egypt took the same stance.

With that caveat, this is an instructive and gripping documentary.

For Sama is screening at the Shoreline.