Film Review: Inspiring, if Harrowing, “For Sama” Is for All of Us

Film poster: “For Sama”

For Sama (Waad al-Kateab/Edward Watts, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.

A documentary that combines the first-person narrative of a video essay with an unflinching account of the humanitarian crisis in war-torn Syria, For Sama follows its co-director and subject, Waad al-Kateab, from her years as a college student to her marriage, motherhood and beyond. In Waad’s 4th year of study, the 2012 revolution breaks out, and from that day on she bears witness to the unfolding horror in her native land. Despite the nightmare around her, she falls in love and weds her best friend, Hamza, eventually giving birth to a daughter, Sama, to whom she dedicates the story. Once a parent, she recognizes the higher stakes; it’s no longer about mere survival, but about building a future. The question remains, where to do it, at home or in exile? In this gripping film, co-directed by Edward Watts (Escaping ISIS), we’re with Waad, Hamza and Sama, all the way, no matter what happens.

One of the great challenges of films about terrible things happening to good people is the issue of how to avoid misery fatigue. In just the past few years, we have been treated to such searing examinations of the wages of martial sin as Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar-nominated short The White Helmets and Feras Fayyad’s feature-length Last Men in Aleppo, both about Syria, as well as Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, about the global refugee crisis. Out in theaters right now is Fayyad’s latest documentary, The Cave, also set in Syria. No one who lives at a comfortable remove from these troubles should be so arrogant as to presume to look away, but it can be hard to stay focused in the face of so much tragedy. Fortunately, the deeply personal approach to For Sama keeps us involved, even through the worst of it.

Waad al-Kateab filming the ruins of a building destroyed by bombing in besieged east Aleppo, October 2016. Courtesy of PBS Distribution. Copyright Waad al-Kateab.

For there is death and destruction on display. This is war, after all, no two ways about it, and the relentless terror waged on the Syrian population by the forces of their dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and his Russian accomplices, is horrifying to watch, though a must-see. Do not turn your heads as children are killed and hospitals bombed. Children are also brought into this world, however, and life is bleak but not entirely hopeless for those who survive. As the al-Kateabs persevere, we gain inspiration from their resilience. If they can soldier on against the forces of evil with no greater weapon than their camera, then the least we can do is pay tribute to their heroism and keep our eyes glued on the screen. The journey forward is worth it.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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