We are not just in the eye of war’s storm in the documentary For Sama. We are in the ears, nose, throat and pores. We are in the heart and brain. We are everywhere: not least in the soul of Waad al-Kateab, the mother and film-maker whose daughter and dedicatee is named in the title.
The Syrian war has gone on so long it has produced something worse than compassion fatigue. Passion fatigue. Not just our pity for the victims but our keenly felt rage at the oppressors and their allies (condemnation of the Russians being a main motif here) has started to be crushed by the tanks of longevity.
This harrowing film restores our responsiveness. Al-Kateab films everything: from the quiet, day-to-day domestic anxieties of a mum with a child and married lover — a multitasking doctor/activist in ravaged Aleppo, who later becomes her husband — to the chaos and carnage, day-to-day also, of shelled streets, houses, hospitals . . .
The diary-form movie takes us from 2011 to 2016. The director, a business degree student turned self-appointed war journalist, makes no pretence of invisibility. Her camera is a cranky, often demonised presence: “Are you filming? Film this!” screams a mother holding a freshly slain child. So is al-Kateab herself. An artist painted into her own “Guernica”, she is omnipresent. But she can also erase herself in order to foreground horrors and tragedies she wants to save from oblivion.
Two young brothers sob over a slaughtered third, brought to the hospital in that ghostly, recurring procession we come to know of survivors and slain: white-caked figures — dust, dust and more dust — performing some Pagliacci from Purgatory. One hospital crumbles after another. Tyres are burnt in streets so that through the smoke “the Russians can’t see where to bomb.” Rivers are fished for corpses.
Finally come the ceasefire and exodus. Yet in minutes “They’re shooting at the ambulances. We have to go back!” It hardly bears thinking about. But that’s the siren cry of response fatigue. For Sama ensures we will go on thinking about it; and feeling it; and in some ghostly, ghastly way living it.
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