In so many ways, Waad al-Kateab is a young woman just like you and I. She went to school, left home, fell in love, got married, had a daughter. But al-Kateab’s milestones are happening amidst the backdrop of the Syrian war. For five years she has had her camera trained on the uprising in Aleppo and she crafts this documentary as a love letter to her young daughter so she may know just what her parents were fighting for.
This is an intimate, female portrait of war, a side of the story rarely reported. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit is the film that got me thinking down this path; war stories are so often told from the point of view of the soldier (1917 is a good one), but for the women and children left behind, life goes on. Life: complicated and confusing, but there is no pause button. Children grow out of shoes, and tape idols on their bedroom walls. Mothers cobble together meals, and try to create some semblance of a happy home. For Sama is a story that is ongoing, and real. Waad al-Kateab is a real wife and mother telling her story from war-torn streets. Bombs are dropping around her but she slow-danced at her wedding just like you, peed on a stick just like you, felt her belly swell not just with baby but with hope and happiness, but tinged with a filament of fear always burning from within. She plays peek-a-boo with her baby just like you, but flees from a barrel bomb dropped on her by her own government with her baby clutched to her breast. But she loves her country just like you, believes it is worth saving. Her husband, a doctor, tends every day to the wounded. There are always new wounded. Sometimes the body bags are so small. It is endless work. So is the balancing of parenthood and principle, the urge to flee the city to protect their daughter’s life, and the conviction to stay and fight for what so many have already sacrificed so much.
It feels so alien to face such choices, and yet one image stops me cold: sock feet in a pile of bodies. Sock feet that could easily belong to anyone. Must I (we?) relate to those who suffer before we feel compassion? It’s so easy to dismiss this conflict as “their” problem but the boundary between us and them is illusory at best. We are all brothers and sisters, and if this documentary helps us walk a mile in someone else’s socks, it has done its job.
Sama is a toddler with big, gorgeous eyes. She was born during war. She knows nothing else. A loud bang erupts as another bomb explodes nearby. Her mother flinches, crouches reflexively, but Sama doesn’t react at all: a baby who doesn’t cry at a loud noise? Sama doesn’t know this is wrong, this is scary. She thinks this is life. Who will be left to tell her otherwise?