By Ali Moosavi.
Many years ago, I attended a scientific conference in Damascus. I was touched by the beauty of the place and hospitality of its people. Many of the conference delegates stayed a few extra days to visit Aleppo. They described as a truly historical city of unrivalled beauty and urged me to join them. Unfortunately, I could not. The Aleppo today is very different to the Aleppo then. A totally unrecognizable bombed out derelict. In For Sama, a remarkable documentary made by a young Syrian mother, a young boy is asked what he wants to be when he grows up? He replies: I want to become an architect and rebuild Aleppo.
If you think you know what has been happening in the Syrian conflict, think again. The news coverage that we are fed in the media has been sanitized for general public consumption. Images deemed to be offensive or cause discomfort to some, are removed. Even those which appear after a warning that they may be disturbing to some, have been carefully vetted. In For Sama Waad Al-Khateab, a young Syrian girl, takes us deep into the hell that Aleppo became. Without any restraints. No worries that the images may cause discomfort. In fact, they are meant to disturb and distress. These are not the sort of images we see on CNN, BBC, etc. Not even those taken by cameramen and reporters willing to go the extra mile in risk taking in pursuit of the Pulitzer Prize. The images here have been taken at the risk of losing life and limb. They are taken by someone who, in Bob Dylan’s words “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”. We see dead bodies of men, women and children. Some mutilated beyond recognition. Some still wearing the handcuffs that were put on them while they were being tortured to death. Bodies being thrown into a mass grave. It is truly the depiction of Hell on Earth.
Waad Al-Khateab uses the framing device of a video letter to her daughter Sama to record the events in Aleppo, from the start of the uprising in 2011 against the rule of Bashar Al-Assad to the evacuation of its remaining inhabitants in 2016. The film is not in chronological order and goes back and forth in time, so that a scene is good old days in Aleppo suddenly gives way to people sheltering from bombs. In the beginning Waad is a young university student studying journalism. Like any good journalist, her camera is always by her side; either a professional camera or the one on her mobile phone. In the five years that the documentary covers, she marries Hamza, a young doctor and gives birth to Sama. We witness how a peaceful protest is brutally crushed without any mercy. The rebels in Aleppo are no match for the might of the Syrian army, backed by Russian bomber jets. The hospitals are a favorite target of bombings. Waad says because the government and their cohorts believe that targeting hospitals breaks people’s spirits. The pediatrician who delivers Sama is killed in one of these bombings a few months after she is born. In one scene Waad informs that eight out of the nine hospitals in Aleppo are completely destroyed. Footage from CCTV of the hospitals shows the moment a bomb hits the place. This chilling message from the Russians is delivered to the rebels via the UN: surrender and we spare your lives. Waad, whose reports have gained worldwide attention, sighs that 68 million people have watched her video reports but no one does anything to stop the regime. This raises the bigger question: have we become numb to the violence and killings reported on a daily basis, whether it happens in Aleppo or El Paso? Are the killings just more statistics blurted out in the news channels, in between Brexit and Hurricanes?
It is a wonder that people like Waad and her husband Hamza stayed in Aleppo as long as they did. Hamza justifies this decision by expressing that everyone has a role to play in justice against suppression. Some of the images in For Sama make a deep and lasting impression. A mother clings to the dead body of her child and walks the streets of Aleppo, refusing to be separated. Children swim in an artificial pool created by water trapped in the large craters resulted from aerial bombings. A child has made paper figures of the friends and family who have either left Aleppo or been killed. The bombings and killings are so relentless that Waad muses: in Aleppo, there is no time to grieve.
Undoubtedly, many of documentaries that matter in the future will be made by mobile phones. These small, portable devices have enabled people to record events as they happen and keep these records for future generations. A lot of the footage in For Sama has been recorded on mobile phones. The British documentary maker, Edward Watts is credited as co-director. He has helped with organizing the footage and has shot some professional extra footage in the deserted Aleppo, using overhead cinematography, which appear at the end. For Sama has a happy ending for Waad and Hamza. They are accepted as refugees in the UK and Waad gets a job at UK’s Channel 4 TV. For most other Aleppo residents though, the end was either getting killed by Assad/Russians or ISIS, being trapped in a refugee camp somewhere or back in Aleppo, trying to rebuild the city from the remaining ashes and dust. As Bob Dylan says in Desolation Row:
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).