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The Independent Critic

Waad al-Kateab, Sama al-Kateab, Hamza al-Kateab
Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
95 Mins.

 "For Sama" Screening as Finalist at Heartland Film Fest 

Over the years, I've seen countless numbers of documentary features at Indy's Heartland International Film Festival. I've seldom, if ever, seen a documentary feature that has stayed with me like For Sama, a non-stop riveting and heartwrenching motion picture that lingers in my heart and in my mind as if I've only watched it a few moments ago. 

Everywhere I turn, it's still there. 

While you may be tempted to dismiss For Sama as simply another documentary about the war in Syria, rest assured that you have most definitely never seen a documentary like this one. Simultaneously epic and intimate in presentation, For Sama, perhaps more effectively than most any other documentary on the subject matter makes you feel this story unfolding in every fiber of your being. 

The conflict began in 2011 during the Arab Spring. It's a conflict, as recent national headlines would indicate, that continues to this very day. For years, the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have, supported by the Russians, relentlessly bombed both rebel groups and defenseless civilians in what can only be considered a mass genocide. 

While we have seen documentaries about the attempted genocide of the Syrians of Aleppo, we've never seen one with the angle taken in For Sama, a film which simply must be considered a frontrunner for the upcoming awards season. For Sama was filmed by Waad al-Kateab, a 26-year-old citizen journalist turned wife to Hamza, a physician, and eventually a mother to, of course, Sama, for whom she makes this film as a sort of maternal love letter unsure if Sama will even survive long enough to ever see it. 

Despite Aleppo's siege by government forces and daily bomibing by the Russians, Waad remains faithful in her quest to document the unfathomable tragedies of the war while attempting, almost unfathomably, to offer her daughter some semblance of normalcy amidst it all. 

To call For Sama harrowing seems inadequate. For Sama is more than harrowing. For Sama is everyday life in a way that everyday life can't possibly be imagined here in the United States, a place where a narcissistic national leader can, with the flick of a mood ring, do an abrupt about face and betray those who have been loyal and instantaneously risk the lives of thousands whose lives have already been torn apart. 

For Sama had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Fest where it picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Documentary Feature. It also picked up Best Documentary at Cannes and the Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs. It's now a finalist at the 2019 Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis going on from Oct. 10-20, 2019 at various venues around Indy. 

There are moments of stunning beauty contained within For Sama, from the simple yet endearing wedding that united Waad and Hamza to the birth of Sama to little, quiet celebrations that arise almost spontaneously that seem to serve as part defiance and part coping skill. 

Then, there are other moments.

They are moments I won't dare describe here because they must be experienced. However, trust me when I say that For Sama contains some of the most riveting, unforgettable, and emotionally jarring scenes ever witnessed in a doc features. 

And I've seen a LOT of documentary features. 

It's hard to fathom people like Waad and Hamza, a husband-and-wife team who in a different time and different place would likely be living the good life with Hamza as a gifted physician and Waad as an unquestionably talented journalist. Waad's camera is unflinching, constantly aimed toward the truth no matter how difficult the truth is to watch as hospital after hospital, home after home is destroyed and she and Hamza and countless others fiercely dedicate themselves to saving who they can, comforting those who need it, and providing dignity for those who've been lost. 

I'm in tears now even thinking about it. 

Co-directed by Emmy Award-winner Edward Watts, who will be with the film during its screenings in Indy at Heartland Film Fest, For Sama is an exhausting film, an immersive piece of living cinema that is somehow both desperate and hopeful, dehumanizing yet filled with love after love after love. 

There's Sama. Oh my word. Sama. Such a beautiful child, at times seemingly unaware of the chaos and devastation that surrounds her, with eyes so bright and vivid that you can't help but want to scoop her up in your arms and protect her with everything you have. 

Indeed, both despite the circumstances and because of them that's exactly what her parents do. 

There's grief seemingly within every frame of For Sama, the kind of grief that penetrates the skin and serves as a constant companion. 

There's more. There's so much that it seems like there's emotions that can't possibly be described with words. 

For Sama is a work of brilliant wonder, a difficult film to watch but a film that demands to be watched for the hundreds of thousands who've lost their lives and for the genocides that we know are yet to come in our world. Waad has, indeed, crafted a love letter and a poem and a testimony and a life to her young daughter and it is, without question, one of the absolute best documentaries of 2019 and a film I can't picture ever forgetting. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic