Tuesday, September 24, 2019

For Sama (18) – a heartbreaking record of the ordinary and extraordinary in under-siege Aleppo (QFT until 2 October)

I defy you not to let a salty tear escape down your cheek as a nine-month pregnant woman injured in a shell attack is wheeled into a makeshift Aleppo hospital operating room and her baby son is quickly delivered by caesarean, pulled out floppy and limp with no discernible pulse and the staff vigorously attempt to revive the lifeless soul.

It’s just one shocking scene of many throughout journalist Waad al-Kateab’s love letter For Sama to her daughter, born in the conflict.

Waad studied at Aleppo’s university. The city was her home. Back in 2012 in the fourth year of her economics degree, she sensed that the revolution was peaceful and nearly complete, an uprising against President Assad that united Christians and Muslims. But her footage shows the security forces brutally beating protesters, the beginning of a long and bloody war of attrition. (Her footage was broadcast by Channel 4 News as part of their reports about Syria and Aleppo.)

She films the ever calm, always cheerful Dr Hazma who chooses Aleppo over his partner who has already fled and stays to run one of the nine hospitals in the east of the city. Several years later, it’s the last to be destroyed by Russian air raids. Indefatigable, he sets out to scour the city for a replacement building that won’t be on the military maps and starts over again. A credit to his calling and profession.

Waad and Hazma are at once both ordinary and extraordinary. Footage of the executed bodies lying on the ground and the concrete frame of buildings remaining once the walls and roofs have been bombed away are interspersed with more intimate moments. Waad and Hazma wed amidst confetti, red balloons, a gorgeous white dress, and dance to Julio Iglesias’ Crazy. The sweet gift of a persimmon to take away and ripen is as precious as gold.
“What a life I’ve brought you into? … You didn’t choose this … Will you ever forgive me?”

When little Soma is born, their baby daughter grows up like so many infants that don’t know that air raids and exploding shells aren’t normal, that windows covered with sandbags aren’t normal, that school classrooms in basement rooms aren’t normal.

But their working vocabulary also includes words like ‘clusterbomb’, and their playground can be a burnt out frame of a bus. One child cries that a schoolmate didn’t show up in class: their family had fled overnight. It’s anything but normal. Another child voices the feeling of home that is so central to Waad’s film: “I want to be an architect so I can rebuild Aleppo”.

Hazma saves people that are injured by the conflict that Waad documents. All the while, Sama continues to feed no matter what happens around her.

Nainita Desai’s score is gentle and non-invasive. The timeline jumps around, cushioning the audience from the stress of the continuing bombardment of Aleppo. Yet the new life also accentuates the feeling of loss.

Their decision back in 2012 to remain in Aleppo involved sacrifice. As Russian forces close in on the hospital compound, will their sacrifices have been for nothing?
“Sama, will you remember Aleppo? Will you blame me for staying? Will you blame me for leaving now?”
This love letter to Sama is also a love letter to the city of Aleppo. It documents the best of humanity that flourished amidst the death and destruction.

It contrasts the cowards dropping bombs and threatening medics with messages passed via the UN with the heroes on the ground tending to the injured while having no time to mourn the death of their hospital colleagues.

For Sama (18) is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until 2 October. It’s a powerful film that deserves a wide audience.

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