BEIRUT: When the 2020 Oscar ceremonies start flickering across the few million television screens in a couple of weeks, there will be two Arab films in contention. It reflects the present state of the world that both the titles are feature-length documentaries, both telling stories from Syria’s civil war.The first of the docs to be released was “For Sama,” by first-time filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab and Emmy laureate Edward Watts. The film documents five years of Kateab’s life in Aleppo, focusing on a period from the early days of civil demonstrations against the Assad regime, in April 2012, through to her family’s highly stressful evacuation from the city in late 2016.
Like some earlier documentary collaborations to emerge from the Syrian conflict (Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s 2014 “Silvered Water” comes to mind), the success of “For Sama” rests upon years of rushes shot by one filmmaker on the ground, which another helps shape into effective cinema.
The film’s road to the Oscars is notable in that it was made for television. Not one of the hip streaming services but a pair of public broadcasters - Channel 4 in the U.K. and “Frontline,” the flagship documentary news programme of American Public Television.
“For Sama” premiered in March 2019 at the South by Southwest Film Festival before its European debut at Cannes. Since then it’s collected dozens of juried and audience prizes at international festivals, including IDFA, Toronto’s Hot Docs, as well as the European Film Awards.
Critics and audiences alike have remarked that “For Sama” is a harrowing cinematic experience. The same can be said of many of the works that have emerged from the Syrian tragedy. Thanks to the way Watts and Kateab choose to tell their story, this fraught experience is elevated to cinema.
Kateab was working on an economics degree in Aleppo when the Arab Spring arrived in Syria. She started using her mobile phone to capture the demonstrations of the city’s opposition activists before graduating to a proper camera.
As she recounts in her (mostly Arabic) voiceover, one of Kateab’s principal informants was Hamza, a passionate activist who, being a doctor, quickly became central to the story as the regime resorted to violence.
“For Sama” effectively recounts two intertwined stories.
On one hand it begins with Kateab’s documentation of the revolution in Aleppo - including the state’s Jan. 2013 torture and massacre of dozens of young male activists - the arming of the opposition, its taking control of eastern Aleppo, and the siege that regime and Russian forced laid upon the rebel enclave.
On the other hand, the filmmaker recounts how she and Hamza chose to remain in the city despite the tightening siege, where they become intimate, marry and have children.
The film’s title reflects the filmmakers’ decision to privilege the second, personal narrative over the first.
The eponymous “Sama” is Kateab’s firstborn child and the film is premised on explaining the parents’ decision to remain in a city at war with their infant. Indeed, the siege takes a decisive turn for the worse when the couple are en route to see Hamza’s father in Turkey and a particularly tense sequence follows the parents’ decision to return with Sama to their community of friends in Aleppo, smuggling themselves through the advancing front line.
The doc’s time-capsule conceit allows the filmmakers to use Kateab’s footage (which includes a discreet use of drone footage to show the city’s advancing stages of destruction) creatively.
Rather than recounting a strictly linear story from the beginning of Aleppo’s revolution to the evacuation, the narrative moves back and forth from the “present” - after Sama’s birth - through stages in the city’s history that explain how the filmmaker and the cast of characters about her reached this stage, late in the siege.
The cinematic utility of this decision is obvious. By making Sama not only the center of the narrative but the target of Kateab’s voiceover is among several heart-grabbing gestures that dissolve the barriers that otherwise stand between the (Western) audience and the film’s Syrian subjects.
Once the opposition is militarised, the film becomes increasingly preoccupied with the victims of the Russian and Syrian air forces’ bombing campaign. Kateab doesn’t discriminate in which unfortunates she captures with her camera, but it’s probably no coincidence that scenes featuring the filmmaker’s beautifully vulnerable little girl are often juxtaposed with emergency room sequences that include bloodied mothers and broken youngsters wavering between living and dying.
One heart-rending sequence shows a pair of little boys, barefoot and dusty after an airstrike, bringing their brother’s limp form to the hospital. The camera remains trained on them as the team works to revive the brother. Later, the boys’ mother arrives, and sniffles grow more audible in the audience.
In another sequence a young mother, late in pregnancy, is brought in unconscious and operated upon. The doctors decide to give her an emergency caesarean section. Kateab remains with the new-born as they try to coax his slack form toward life.
All civil wars have a few survivors.