Sama means sky in Arabic and Syrian director Waad al-Kateab hopes the skies above Aleppo might soon be free of Russian warplanes and the destruction they bring. Sama, al-Kateab’s baby, is named for the sky her mother dreams of, one simply populated by clouds and rain. Taking the form of an address to her daughter, al-Kateab’s film is intimate and powerful, a harrowing picture of an ongoing civil war.
In 2012, al-Kateab met her husband, Dr Zahed Katurji (aka Dr Hamza), at protests against President Bashar al-Assad. Both were dedicated to a new Syria: she, a marketing student, filmed, while he provided first aid. The film is in part a family video diary: falling in love, a wedding, the birth of a child, hanging out with their friends. But for all the irrepressible, relatable joy of these events, shells and bombs are often in the background. In one scene old men playing chess comment on Assad’s long neck and how a long neck means a long life. He’s a bloody giraffe, they exclaim.
Much of the footage is from hospitals, places which also act as Sama’s creche. When Al Quds, a hospital Dr Hamza helped set up, is bombed (and 53 people killed) they forge on and set up another which also becomes their home. The camera does not look away from the brutality. Over and over again dust-and-blood covered children appear; they are traumatised, grief-stricken. Many of them die. As al-Kateab witnesses this devastation she questions her own decision to stay, to bring a child into this world. Co-directed by Edward Watts, this humanist film is a vital addition to a growing canon documenting the ongoing war crimes in Syria. — Catherine Bisley