Guns rattle, dark plumes rise and a child is born into war. Her small life is a diary of the blood, pain and rubble that have shattered Syria. A new documentary about her, “For Sama,” is a riveting gaze of a family enduring barrel bombs, death and the bounds of love in a land of a new century’s atrocities.
Waad al-Kateab, who co-directed the film, was determined her daughter Sama would have a record not only of the destruction of her city, Aleppo, but of the bravery and humor that held a neighborhood together against the forces of President Bashar Assad. Narrated in Kateab’s lullaby voice, the film is a mother’s earnest explanation of why she didn’t bundle up her child and flee to safety.
“Sama, you’re the most beautiful thing in our life,” Kateab says. “But what life have I brought you into? You didn’t choose this. Will you ever forgive me?”
“For Sama” is a nursery rhyme whispered from a nation’s horrors, a plea for never forgetting. Kateab’s unflinching camera and sparse sentences — war has no use for adjectives — track her university life, falling in love, marrying a doctor, giving birth to Sama, finding a house, planting a tree. Those images are poisoned by menace as tank shells fly and boys, faces white from bomb dust, stroke the hair and kiss the forehead of a fallen brother. Streets shudder, buildings collapse. Mothers wail.
The Syrian war, which has killed an estimated 400,000, has slipped into the world’s subconscious, a terrible thing happening far away. It started with a joyous rebellion against an autocrat and ended, like much of the ill-fated Arab Spring, with broken refugees and crushed ideals. Those early days in 2011-12, when protesters marched in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, were betrayed by duplicity, armies and fresh graves.
Kateab and co-director Edward Watts reveal how community is family. To give up on your city is to forsake who you are. A soul ripped from its home cannot bear witness to the final massacre; it cannot rebuild the land that gave it meaning. This is what Kateab, a citizen journalist who filed dispatches for British TV, and her husband, Hamza, who started a hospital to tend the wounded, want Sama to know. But they have dangerously balanced their daughter between patriotism and parenthood.
Kateab is a sensitive and powerful storyteller. Her film is stubborn and pure; her soothing voice is a lament threaded with steel. Like the most perceptive cinema and literature about war, “For Sama” is a tale of intimate moments subsumed by history’s violent churn. A mother cherishes the gift of a single persimmon. The city crumbles at the edges. Peril creeps closer, and neighborhoods become eerie islands awaiting inevitable doom. The enemy is often invisible: the sound of gunfire in an alley, a bomb dropping through twilight.
Tragedy comes as strange punctuation; a life is here, then gone, a dream for a nation denied. There are untold Kateabs across the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab uprisings veered from celebration to dismay. “For Sama” is a wrenching, indelible reminder of the human spirit and the cost of fighting a tyrant. At times, you want Kateab — is she being irresponsible? — to take her daughter and go. You know she cannot, even as she notes that Sama doesn’t cry like “normal” children. The prattle of a Kalashnikov no longer startles.
But the moment comes late in 2016 when there is no choice. The world is too timid; Assad will stay in power over a carved-up Syria. Aleppo lies battered. Bombed streets become paths to exile. Kateab takes her daughter and walks through what once was. War leaves a sliver between memory and loss. The defeated are left with sacks of possessions and calendars of the years-long battle they fought.
“It was all for you, Sama,” says Kateab.
One suspects that when Sama is old enough to know, she will be proud her parents laid claim to a dream, no matter how elusive.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica