For Sama, Not For Syria
Huge congratulations are in order for the makers of ‘For Sama’ who narrowly missed out on winning an Oscar for ‘Best Documentary’ at this year’s awards. The film was shown in recent months on terrestrial television in the UK. Suddenly a slice of life in Syria, extremely personal and intimate, was shared with millions of watchers.
The documentary has previously enjoyed film festival and critics recognition wherever it has been screened. What is it about the film, less than two hours long, that has managed to succeed in giving a war weary public such connection to a conflict that appears to be reaching an inevitable political conclusion?
The film is the story of Waad Al-Kateab, a young Syrian journalist, who covered the battle for Aleppo and had a child in the midst of it. It is filmed by her in the first person and is the productive of countless hours of footage. It’s success relies on portraying a complex conflict through an authentic human lens.
Overlaid with the filmmakers narration it shows images captured at the start of the uprising back in 2011. Graffiti on walls turned into bullets fired into crowds, frenzied funerals turned in barrels dropped from the air, cities turned into rubble and lives splintered off into a million different directions.
Much of the media’s focus is understandable on how the conflict cut lives short. Likewise al-Kateab became engaged and married to a medic in Aleppo in a conflict where hospitals and the doctors and nurses who staffed them were targeted like never before. The film was designed as a story of Sama’s childhood, a message from a mother who grew increasingly unsure whether she or her child would survive.
It shows Sama sitting innocently in the corner of operating theatres strewn with the bodies of the most recent bombing. Al-Kateab, now safety living in London, comments at the time that Sama “didn’t cry like other children” but the contrast of humanity at its purest against that of its darkest continues to pummel the viewer with raw emotion and shock. I asked her at a recent screening when she plans to show the film to Sama, “six” is the current plan.
The films producers explained that at one point there were some 15 million video clips about what was happening during the siege of Aleppo. What ‘For Sama’ does is take the macro of statistics, the brevity of headlines and turn it into a story in which any parent can recognise their own concerns and fears.
Al-Kateab herself argues that the film should be a clarion call for action, yet it feels impossible to move a global public to do more than simply feel appalled as to what is happening in Syria. The borders of the country feel more closed than ever and the hearts and minds of international decision makers seem to have pushed the conflict into the ‘too difficult’ pile.
Indeed there is a huge disconnect between the global celebration of “For Sama” - with its stars walking down the red carpet and receiving plaudits from a glittering ‘who’s who’ of US celebrity - and the very real catastrophe unravelling in the northwest of Syria at the same moment.
Al-Kateab wore a dress embroidered with the Arabic for “we dared to dream and we will not regret dignity” to the Oscars. Meanwhile as the cameras flashed and the champagne fizzed in Hollywood, over in Idlib there is little in the way of dreams nor dignity. The day after the Oscars the United Nations Refugee agency, UNHCR, put out an email to their supporters explaining that “while the red carpets have been rolled up and put away, a desperate humanitarian situation continues to unfold on the other side of the world”.
Across Syria’s northwest Idlib region, the UN now estimates that a staggering 586,000 people, mostly women and children, have fled renewed violence since December alone. Turkey has made it clear that fleeing Syrians will not be allowed across its borders and instead people are being ‘kettled’ trapped between advancing Regime forces and the border.
Whilst the conflict in Syria has been a byword for brutality and suffering for almost nine years now, there is no reason to think that the worst is behind us and indeed the continuing catastrophe in Idlib may prove that to be the case. The incredible success of “For Sama” means we can say with some confidence that people know what is happening and what could happen, as they have taken away with them the film’s message of what DID happen in Aleppo.
Yet such is the disconnection from the global public to Syria’s suffering that it seems no tactic - including an Oscar-nominated documentary - can move them from their apathy. The aid agency ‘Syria Relief’ took out a full page advert in British “Times” newspaper with the headline; “whilst you are getting angry about things which don’t really matter, women and children are being murdered in Idlib”. However, it remains unlikely for this to spark protests on the street or a glut of letters to politicians demanding action.
It is another aspect of Syria’s tragedy that whilst it continues to get worse many around the world have it banked as been finished or simply too difficult a problem from them or their country to be involved in. Whilst millions may see themselves as being “For Sama” they cannot be said to be “For Syria”.