In the genre of war films, rarely do we get a work that truly shows the effects of war upon civilians. Even when civilians are portrayed as the focus of the narrative, they still tend to fall into the trap that every offering from the genre falls into: that no war film can truly avoid glorifying it to some extent. The stakes are too high and the drama is too intense for any filmmaker to resist falling into making exciting narratives. Most war films are guilty of this glorification, though some works sincerely try to avoid this instinct. For fictionalized narratives, Elem Klimov’s Come and See comes closest to making war the harrowing hell that it really is. For documentaries, For Sama must be among the very best in its immediacy and realism.
For most of For Sama, we follow Waad Al-Kateab, a young journalist at the beginning of the conflict that would become the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Waad chooses to start her film with CCTV footage of a hospital explosion to make it abundantly clear that what follows will not be some sanitized version of the years of fear and oppression that she felt. We see scenes of great misery and violence, physical and emotional. Hospitals are so crowded that patients must lie on the floor in their own blood. An inconsolable mother carries her dead son down the street. Even in smaller moments, the war is never far away since we see Waad flinch at the distant sounds of bombs. We as viewers are transfixed on Waad as she is always in the thick of it, even when she doesn’t intend to be, since all of Syria is a war zone. As she films with a shaky, digital camera, we never forget that she is constantly risking her life. Even if you know the fate of Waad and her family, the film is effectively suspenseful.
Other than sheer documentation of the horrors of war, the real value of For Sama is its observation of how people adjust during times of great peril. Of course they all live in fear, yet we see Waad fall for and marry Hamza, a doctor who stayed behind to save the injured, despite the violence of protests in Aleppo. We also see Waad raise the namesake of this documentary, her daughter Sama and do her best to give her a normal life under the circumstances. It may be impossible for people who don’t live in such circumstances to imagine, but For Sama proves that people can really get used to the worst environment possible if they have no other options. We even see some people employing gallows humor about their situations. Yet, it is this dangerous complacency that Waad is challenging by filming constantly.
Ultimately, For Sama’s greatest purpose goes far beyond a record that her daughter can look back on so she can understand what her parents went through to raise her in safety and comfort. It is the voice of someone we have never heard from when such stories are told: a female civilian who had little power to control the conflict she and her loved ones found themselves in the middle of. It is an experience more common than one might think. Many older immigrants come from countries that have experienced their share of war and political strife: South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Kosovo – yet few documents of their experiences exist in mainstream American media. For Sama is valuable not only because it shows Waad’s experiences and the experiences of refugees like her but also it is a solemn reminder to all of us who live in safety that to live free of strife and discrimination is a privilege not afforded to all.