Arts Festival

Love and tenderness in a time of Aleppo



MY daughter, my world: Waad al-Kateab and Sama. Photo courtesy

SAY THE WORDS ‘Aleppo’ and ‘2016’ and if you have had a quarter of an ear on the news during that period, you will shiver with the memory of appalling atrocities perpetrated against Syrian civilians. In her intimate, multi-award-winning documentary, journalist Waad al-Kateab offers a reflection of what it was like to be in the belly of the siege. Her work, For Sama, features on this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, available online from 20 until 30 August 2020. Because of the ongoing pandemic, access to this festival is free of charge.

When you read a book or watch a film and there is a dedication in it, it’s generally a demure couple of words at the beginning or end of the work that hit you in the heart: it tells you that the person behind this piece has a back story. And loved ones. They don’t need to say more. But al-Kateab’s work takes the dedication and renders it central to the whole narrative, placing her love for her family against a backdrop of war.

It’s a gesture which thrusts you into the heart of al-Kateab’s private life, from the get-go, and while this is commendable and unusual, because al-Kateab’s focus is on being a woman journalist and a mother in a broken city, something is lost in this gesture. Indeed, there are two basic lines that need to be toed in the production of a documentary – particularly one that is very close to the documenter’s heart. One is the viewer, who this viewer is and why this film is being made. And the other is the fact that a documentary film sits at the nexus of many values: from journalism to entertainment, storytelling to advocacy. It’s a medium rich with possibility but also with dangers.

For Sama is an interesting case in point. On the one hand, it is made to honour the life of al-Kateab’s baby daughter, Sama. On the other, co-directed, filmed and co-produced by al-Kateab – and implicitly, written by her too – the work begs for another voice. Granted, it does not promise to be a political diatribe or even offer clear facts about who the perpetrators were, and it hones unabashedly on the human drama created by the political terror in Syria. With only al-Kateab’s lens on the situation, however, something is lost in camera shake and ultra-dramatic footage.

And this is an issue with documentaries focusing on the rise and fall of any atrocity. You can see just so much bloodshed and cruelty before you reach horror fatigue and your eyes gloss over the terrible things. There are many terrible things in this film, but they beg for editorial courage that should take you from the stench of spilled blood and the sound of a bereft mother keening and tearing her clothes. The Lebanese advocacy film Capernaum achieved this with excellence.

But more than this, al-Kateab’s biggest problem in For Sama is the commercial film industry which has drenched film-goers with nearly 100 years of poignant tales of war, loss, terror and betrayal – the whole bang shoot. And yes, those stories are fictional or only based on fact, but the emotional tropes they offer have been done, over the years, so impeccably and so frequently, that you yearn for a documentary of For Sama’s nature to have tread carefully on these well-trodden grounds, to create something fresh.

This is not to diss al-Kateab’s bravery in filming the incredibly scary scenario of her city and her husband’s hospital under a destructive and Russian-supported regime, but much of the horror al-Kateab is articulating here, slips into those pained ideas of love and choices that sadly skirt with cliché. After all, there are few more photogenic contexts than the ruins of buildings. Ask any Romanticist.

And then, there is the seemingly unexpurgated use of footage which al-Kateab shot several years ago. While archival material is invaluable, some of it in this work reflects on a less mature journalist in her interviewing protocol. There is a jarring moment where she questions a little boy as to how he feels about his friends leaving the city, for example. He is articulate by his silence and his cringing body language. Al-Kateab insists, with ongoing questions, coaxing him to say the unsayable and then to burst out crying. It makes for watching that feels unnecessarily cruel.

It is, however, the placing of the viewer in the intimate context of a freshly born child, delivered in an emergency C-section to a nine-months-pregnant victim of a shell attack that is the guttural heart of this film, and the reason you have to see the film. This vignette, in which you are sure of the presence of death, offers a hairpin of hope, celebrating the miracle of life with candid rawness. And poetry, even in the midst of utter brutality.

  • For Sama is written by Waad al-Kateab and directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. Filmed and produced by Waad al-Kateab, it features creative input by Chloe Lambourne and Simon McMahon (editing), Nainita Desai (music) and Enge Gray and Nicholas Bays (colour). It features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 20-30 August 2020, and this year is accessible online and without charge.

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