Explosions Shook an Aleppo Hospital. One Young Mother Kept Filming.

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November 19, 2019

Wrapped in a pink-and-white striped blanket, the baby girl coos at her mother, who gently speaks and sings to her from the other side of the camera. Eyes wide, the baby reaches for a tiny foot and brings it to her mouth.

For just a moment, it could be any smitten new mom’s footage of her baby daughter.

Then comes the sound of an explosion.

Moments like this one, where joy and attempts at normalcy collide with unimaginable violence, are woven throughout the new documentary For Sama — a powerful chronicle of one young woman’s journey through love, motherhood and survival during the Syrian conflict.

That young woman is filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, mother to baby Sama, in the scene above. In shaky handheld footage from the film’s opening moments, al-Kateab and others rush down to the basement in search of safety. An explosion hits, and a corridor fills with smoke. The building they’re in, we realize, is a hospital.

All the while — as the power goes out, as the staff starts pumping ventilators by hand to keep their patients alive, and as others help to care for baby Sama — al-Kateab keeps filming, determined that there be a record of what those who remained in rebel-held Aleppo during the siege that ended in 2016 endured at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military and its allies, including Russian forces.

”Sama, you’re the most beautiful thing in our life,” she says in narration overlaid on the scene. “But what a life I’ve brought you into. You didn’t choose this. Will you ever forgive me?”

Al-Kateab first started filming life in Aleppo in the early stages of the Syrian uprising, which began in 2011. Publicly, the president denied the protests’ existence. So “filming them was the only way to show the world we were fighting for our freedom,” al-Kateab says. She kept filming over the next five years as the regime’s violence escalated, as she fell in love with one of the last remaining doctors in East Aleppo, as they spent the first year of their baby daughter’s life trying to survive in their besieged city, and as they grappled with whether to stay or go.

The resulting film, directed by al-Kateab and Edward Watts, unfolds as both a record of brutality and loss — and as a message to Sama about love, loyalty and perseverance in the face of impossible choices. One of the year’s most acclaimed theatrical documentaries, For Sama has won the Prix L’Œil d’Or for Best Documentary at the Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, and more than 20 other honorifics. The documentary made its U.S. television debut Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 on FRONTLINE, and is now available for streaming in FRONTLINE’s documentary archive, on pbs.org, on the PBS Video App, and on demand.

Waad al-Kateab and her daughter, Sama, paint a bombed-out bus in East Aleppo.
Waad al-Kateab and her daughter, Sama, paint a bombed-out bus in East Aleppo.

Through al-Kateab’s lens, we watch as the hope of Syrians protesting against Assad is transformed into horror at the government’s response. In scene after scene, we see what she saw: men, women and children bloodied and killed; the makeshift hospital her husband helps to run repeatedly targeted; and Aleppo reduced to rubble under bombardment by government and allied forces.

Yet we also see glimpses of enduring humanity: A new baby surviving against seemingly insurmountable odds. Children laughing and playing in the shell of a bombed-out bus. Doctors risking their lives to care for the wounded. And, in the above scene, the community at the hospital rallying around baby Sama as they huddle in the dark, waiting for the danger to pass.

Stream For Sama in full, for free, below:


For Sama can also be streamed in FRONTLINE’s documentary archive, on pbs.org, on the PBS Video App, and on demand.
The documentary is produced by Channel 4 News and ITN Productions for Channel 4 and FRONTLINE (PBS). It was named an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature in January 2020.

This story has been updated.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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