Horror films, the thinking goes, are fictional. They feature monsters, mangled bodies, an abundance of dread — the stuff of night terrors, but rarely daily routines.
“For Sama” may be a documentary, but it has a foot in that fear-inducing genre.
The footage of life in Aleppo, Syria, in 2016, when the city was under attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, is more disturbing, gruesome and nerve-shredding than anything fictitious. It is the embodiment of horror, a nightmare writ large and come to life: Countless dead, bloodied and dusty, many of them children.
“Unfortunately, my story wasn’t that beautiful and lovely, like a soft story,” filmmaker Waad al-Kateab says on the phone. “It was so hard and tough. And this is really the experience itself.”
“For Sama,” which premiered Tuesday on PBS’s “Frontline” and is now available to stream, is terrifying, devastating and, surprisingly, tender. For it is not solely an account of wartime atrocities; it’s a love story, too. Sama is al-Kateab’s daughter, born around 2015, during Syria’s civil war. The documentary is a pulsing, pleading letter from mother to child.
“Sama, you’re the most beautiful thing in our life,” al-Kateab, who narrates the film, says at the outset. “But what a life I’ve brought you into. You didn’t choose this. Will you ever forgive me?”
In 2011, al-Kateab was a marketing student at the University of Aleppo when revolution cracked her country open. She participated in protests against the Assad regime and became a citizen journalist; the man she would go on to marry, Hamza, was a medical student. In January 2016, she began covering the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo for the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 News; Hamza treated the countless wounded civilians in makeshift, resource-starved hospitals. Airstrikes carried out by the regime and its Russian allies had obliterated the city’s medical centers, severely limited access to care.
One scene about halfway through the award-winning documentary, which al-Kateab directed alongside Edward Watts, is among its most haunting. A wounded woman, nine months pregnant, is in an operating room. Doctors perform an emergency caesarean and pull out a newborn that appears lifeless. (“Does he have a pulse?” someone asks. “Nothing,” another replies.) They pump the infant’s chest, massage him, lift him up by the feet and vigorously rub and slap his back. Still, for what feels like forever, he remains limp. Finally, he opens his eyes and lets out a cry. Mother and child are both alive, we learn. A moment of salvation — a “miracle,’’ al-Kateab says in the film — in a landscape of pain.
While “For Sama” pushes viewers to reckon with unfathomable suffering, there is lightness, too: video of al-Kateab’s wedding, strewn with confetti and orange balloons; Sama sleepily sucking a bottle or climbing on the camera, obscuring our view; Hamza lobbing a snowball at his wife, while she shields the lens of her camera with colorful mittens.
Yet even sweet moments are tinged with reminders of what has been lost. At one point, we see Sama and other children painting the outside of a bus. An adult asks a young girl, “Do you know what hit this bus?” Her response: “A cluster bomb.”
Al-Kateab and her family fled Aleppo for the United Kingdom around December 2016. To leave was wrenching — she felt that meant their sacrifices were for naught — but resources were practically nonexistent, and Hamza had become a target of the Assad regime. The couple were given an ultimatum by Russian forces: Surrender and you’ll be spared, but you must go into exile.
And so they did.
“I feel that the world abandoned us, and in one way, I am abandoning the people who are still there,” she says. But she reminds herself, “I’m trying to keep fighting in a different way, to keep just telling the world what’s happening.”
What we see in “For Sama” isn’t some distant past, al-Kateab notes. She wants audiences to pay attention:
For now, she and her family — Hamza, Sama, and their younger child, Taima — reside happily in London, her “second home.” But she yearns to return to Syria when the country is no longer ruled by Assad.
“My main and my first and my only home will be Aleppo,” al-Kateab says, “forever.”