Rating: (3 stars)
“For Sama,” Waad al-Khateab’s wrenching chronicle of her life in Aleppo at the height of the devastating siege in that city, arrives like a painful bookend to “The Cave,” another recent documentary set in wartime Syria. In both films, lives are lost, saved and irrevocably upended at the hands of a murderous regime and its enablers, whose cruelty is all the more wanton for being seen up close.
Working with fellow director Edward Watts, al-Khateab shapes a compelling, harrowing and occasionally lyrically beautiful narrative out of footage she began shooting while attending college as a marketing student. Inspired by the Arab Spring protests, she and her friends began protesting the oppressive rule of Bashar al-Assad, whose disproportionate response — abetted by his Russian allies — escalated into full-fledged war on his own citizens. “For Sama” is structured as a letter to the daughter al-Khateab gives birth to amid the chaos and pessimism of battle, during which she and the baby’s father, a physician, refuse to give up their city. Filmed in cramped quarters padded with sandbags, bloodied operating rooms and in the once-lovely garden of the house the young couple buys to start their new family, “For Sama” is a before-and-after portrait, both literally and figuratively. What begins as a brash, bold, giddily optimistic love story devolves into something far darker, as viewers begin to question why al-Khateab is willing to endanger her child in the name of doomed principles.
When that question comes most sharply into focus, “For Sama” unfolds like a naturalistic wartime thriller. In other sequences, the audience is simply given the solemn charge and privilege of witnessing young lives being extinguished and — in one particularly gripping scene — at least one being rescued. Even when it’s drenched in grief, “For Sama” contains the seeds of hope.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains graphic scenes of wartime suffering and death. In Arabic with subtitles. 95 minutes.