Sama is the baby daughter of Waad al-Kateab, the Syrian journalist who co-directs and narrates this film, and her genial husband Hamza, the head doctor of a hospital in Aleppo. Set largely in 2016 – with some flashbacks to the start of the Syrian revolution and Waad and Hamza’s wedding – it is, in part, a documentary of the first year of Sama’s life.
It is, though, much much more – not least a message to a grown-up Sama in case her parents don’t survive. This is not unlikely. Aleppo is being bombed to rubble by Russian planes, and anyone who tries to escape is shot by snipers from Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian army. Hamza regularly makes skype interviews with international journalists from the occupied city, making him an Enemy of the State.
Aleppo has a touch of 1945 Berlin about it, with people living in the husks of bombed out buildings with little food or electricity. Normally, the women cooking the food secretly sift out the weevils from the rice that they’re cooking, as otherwise their kids would refuse to touch it. But there is nothing else to eat. This means that finding a dried out persimmon fruit can be cause for great celebration.
Conditions in the operating theatre are even worse. Russian bombers are deliberately targeting the hospitals to demoralise the inhabitants, so the staff and patients regularly have to retreat to the basement. The walls and floors are caked with blood, and the air is full of the screams of parents and children. At one stage, a screaming woman stares into the camera and desperately appeals for someone, anyone, to help.
This is day to day life. Some of the individual incidents that we encounter are even more heart wrenching. A lifeless woman is brought into the hospital. She is 9 months pregnant. The doctors are forced to make a Caesarian section. They deliver what seems to be a grey corpse. After they vigorously rub and slap it, the baby slowly gains life and starts screaming. Fortunately, the mother also survives, but you’re pretty sure that many others don’t.
Then there’s the woman who woke up in the morning feeling a warm dampness in the bed. Her first thought is that someone must have brought her a coffee and spilled it. It slowly dawns on her that her traumatized daughter has pissed the bed that they share. She explains all this while laughing, because if you don’t laugh you lay yourself open to more tragic emotions.
In the hospital, they carry out 850 operations within 20 days. Hamza rarely has any free time to spend with his wife and child. Nor does Waad for that matter. The irony is not lost on her, that the time she is spending filming a legacy for her daughter is time that Sama is left on her own, or hanging in a papoose on her father’s stomach.
There are dozens of other similar stories, but the best way to encounter them is to see the film for yourself. The backdrop of the carcass of burned out Aleppo only adds both to the poignancy and to the suffocating feeling of helpless desperation. Waad and Hamza explain how millions of people are following her journalism and his skype interviews, and yet nothing seems to be happening.
On one occasion, they do get out of Syria, visiting Hamza’s sick father in Turkey. His parents plead with them not to return, or at the very least to leave Sama with them, but they feel drawn to return to their comrades and work colleagues. Escaping the desolation would just be a betrayal of the people alongside whom they’ve been fighting for so long.
Eventually, everyone is forced to leave. Assad’s troops enter the city and they are promised safe passage if they go. Even then, the first people to depart the city are shot dead. Everyone is forced to wait an extra 10 days. This is particularly nerve-wracking for Hamza, whose face and name are known to the authorities who have probably made up lists of “undesirables”. There is no guarantee that he will pass through the border controls alive.
Hamza suggests passing on Sama to someone else, so that at least the baby will be able to escape. Waad is just unable to do it. She has already apologized to her daughter for having given birth to her, and is devastated that she is now expecting a second child (first reaction: “Oh shit!”) This all comes from deep love and a horror that any child should have to live in a world and a country like this.
For Sama provokes deep emotions – anguish that such things are happening now, and anger at the governments who are responsible – and at those who have destabilised the Arab world to pave the way to where we are. But we also feel a great joy and solidarity at the stoic resistance being shown by people enduring the worst possible conditions, who refuse to stop resisting.
And to those who claim that the only people who are being harmed by Assad and Putin’s bombs are Islamic terrorists, we see time and again the humanity of people struggling to survive and to somehow bring up their children. If you are not moved by this film, you just have no soul. Or put another way, if you have a soul, go out and see it now.