DUBAI: At the heart of “For Sama” — the documentary about the fall of Aleppo by filmmakers Waad Al-Khateab and Edward Watts that just won the Golden Eye Documentary Prize at Cannes — is a scene that brought me to tears. Doctors are forced to perform an emergency cesarean section on a young woman who has sustained injuries from an airstrike. When the baby’s lifeless body is pulled from his mother, the doctors spend what seems like an eternity trying to save the child — pumping his heart, slapping his back, even shaking him.
In Alfonso Cuaron’s 2018 Oscar winner “Roma,” a similar scene plays out in fiction — the main character’s child is stillborn, and a long, excruciating attempt at resuscitation is unsuccessful. Watching “For Sama,” with a real life hanging in the balance, it’s hard to have hope for a better outcome. But just as you are about to force yourself to look away, to resent this film for making you watch a newborn slip from life, a miracle happens — the baby’s eyes open, he stirs to life, and cries. The mother and child are fine now, Al-Khateab, also the film’s narrator, assures us.
This newborn fighting to survive is right at home in Aleppo. Years after protests against the government began, years after extremists and airstrikes destroyed the massive Syrian city, many refused to flee. Al-Khateab explains that, in her view, abandoning their home would mean submitting to the will of a regime they aimed to resist.
Al-Khateab and her husband position themselves as activists, and that’s what unites them, even when it’s unclear what their views are, except for their rejection of both extremism and dictatorship. It’s unclear, too, when bombs are dropping over one’s head, whether one should be expected to think past that fact. Over the years that the film traces, it shows, in unflinching detail—many of those, men, women and especially children—who were lost to those bombs, soldiers. and sieges, until finally, with the city in ruins, her family were forced to flee themselves.
Sama, for whom the film is named, is Al-Khateab’s daughter, born during Aleppo’s slow crumble. The film is narrated directly to Al-Khateab’s infant — sometimes an apology, sometimes a time capsule, other times a direct justification for why they stayed so long in harm’s way with a small child. Al-Khateab, who kept her camera rolling for thousands of hours in order to capture every moment she could, believes her daughter needs to see not only the atrocities that were committed, but also the spirit of her home and its people, who clung to their city, and to their lives, until nearly the last man. The world needs to see that, too.