For Sama

In her documentary "For Sama," Waad al-Kateab filmed life under siege in Aleppo, Syria. 

The first-person documentary “For Sama,” showing in Madison on Wednesday, is a very upsetting film to watch at times. It's account of life in Aleppo, Syria, which rebelled against President Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime and was then pounded into rubble with the help of Russian warplanes.

Journalist Waad al-Kateab was a young mother whose husband, Hamza, operated a makeshift hospital in Aleppo to aid victims of the shellings. She filmed what went on there in “For Sama,” co-directed by British filmmaker Edward Watts. Watts shaped her footage into an agonizing and unforgettable cry for help, for Aleppo and for oppressed people everywhere.

While the film features some overhead drone shots showing the breadth of destruction inflicted on Aleppo, for the most part we see the horrors of war up close. We are hunched down with Waad in a hospital hallway as concussions rock the building, or in the operating room as Hamza tries to save his patients despite dwindling medical supplies and, sometimes, no heat or running water.

The casualties keep coming in — on stretchers, wrapped in blankets. Men, women, children, sometimes as many as 300 a day, stain the floors with blood.

“Even when I close my eyes, I see the color red,” Waad al-Kateab says in voiceover. The camera doesn’t flinch. There is one scene, involving a pregnant mother, that is gut-wrenching awful to watch, until an unexpected miracle happens. It left me shaken.

It’s those miracles that al-Kateab and her husband cling to, as well as the moments when the shelling stops and Syrians are able to sneak in a little ordinary life again. We see Hamza’s med students joking with each other, having snowball fights, drawing on each other’s faces with Sharpies. In one haunting moment, small children enter the bombed-out husk of a bus and pretend to be on their way to school.

“To try and live a normal life in this place,” al-Kateab says, “is to stand against the regime.”

Al-Kateab says in the film that she is making the documentary for her young daughter, Sama, to show her what happened to Aleppo and why her parents decided to stay and help when so many others fled. She also made “For Sama” for the rest of the world, who might only know about Aleppo through news reports and CNN maps, to understand the horror and heroism that took place there.

“For Sama” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the museum’s Spotlight Cinema series. Tickets are free for museum members and $7 for all others. 

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.