"Sama, you are the most beautiful thing in our life, but what a life I have brought you into." The words of then 23-year-old Waad al-Kateab are choked as her camera pans around her family's home, a small room with two beds pushed together, natural light blocked out by the sandbags piled up against the window in the hope they'll offer protection from the bombs exploding outside.
Al-Kateab's incredible film For Sama is a brutal depiction of the war in Syria, seen through the eyes of a young woman and her camera. The film, dedicated to Waad's baby daughter, serves as an unflinching record of how she and her friends went from idealistic university students, dreaming of a fairer future in their country, to living a horrifying half-life surrounded by blood, terror and the deaths of those closest to them.
Waad, now 26, was in her fourth year of an economics degree in Aleppo when the Syrian revolution began, back in 2012. No doubt you remember it well; it started off determined and buoyant as students armed with a new weapon, social media, took to the streets peacefully, demanding an end to the oppressive Assad regime. They were spurred on by the events of the Arab Spring – similar movements happening across Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. Huge protests were filmed on mobile phones and the videos sent out into the ether, appearing on computer and phone screens across the globe.
At the beginning of the film, Waad films young men graffitiing the walls of the university science block. "We are overthrowing President Bashar!" one calls. "Even if only on the walls." "I am excited!" Waad shouts as she hurries her friend Hamza, a newly graduated doctor, to a protest where he's going to act as a first aider. In the streets, thousands shout: "Raise your voice! Free students in Aleppo University!"
Of course, as we know now, everything changed as the regime started fighting back with unimaginable cruelty. A particularly brutal act which Waad catches on camera in early 2013 is the film's signal that things are about to turn incredibly sour. It's not long before Waad's handheld camera goes from filming peaceful protests to capturing scenes so horrific, so unbearable, that were they not unfolding on a screen in front of you, it would be hard to fathom that they happened at all.
This is the achievement of Waad's filmmaking. Her handheld camera, constantly on, wipes away the sanitisation of a news report. It eradicates the glossiness of a film. It forces the watcher to truly try and understand (as much as one can from a comfortable chair in a Western country) what horrors the Syrian people were forced to go through at the hands of their own government. Are still going through. Human emotion drives the film forwards.
Because it's not just the daily bombings and shootings that the people of Aleppo had to deal with. For Sama shows how, when you're fighting your own government, you're left without so many things we take for granted. There is no fire service or military to pull people out of the rubble, no hospitals to treat the injured. It is this fact that turns Hamza from a clean-cut, newly graduated idealistic doctor to a wild-eyed activist, running a hospital that he himself set up, now responsible for treating the thousands of injured and dying in the city.
It is the people who take centre stage in For Sama. It is impossible not to notice the unbearably human reactions in such extraordinary circumstances. It is Waad flinching as a bomb hits nearby, then forcing herself to physically relax before picking up Sama to flee. It is in Waad's friend teaching his young daughter not to look both ways before crossing the street, but what to do if she hears Russian warplanes approaching. It is in the woman laughing heartily as she relays the story of worrying she was bleeding, only to realise the wetness was her daughter, so terrified that she'd wet herself. It is in baby Sama's innocent eyes as she stares unquestioningly at the only world she's known, unaware that her sleep shouldn't be interrupted nightly by exploding shells and the sounds of dying.
For Sama is not an easy watch. Waad's filmmaking partner, Edward Watts admits to having had to cover the screen when viewing some of Waad's original footage, and most viewers at home will no doubt have to do the same. The film is, however, an unimaginably important watch. Syria, brought to its knees by the nearly eight-years-long conflict, has been relegated to an afterthought in news reports, despite an ever rising death toll. The refugee crisis, which hit peak media coverage with the death of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, has not gone away. The UN estimates there are 6.7 million refugees from Syria, many still in camps, many still dying as they make treacherous journeys overseas. Just yesterday, Amnesty International reported that Turkey had "tricked or forced" hundreds of refugees back into Syria. And winter is coming. Fifteen refugee children died this past January at a camp on the Jordanian border due to freezing conditions.
As for Syria itself, the country's fate now appears to sit in the hands of Turkey and the Assad regime-supporting Russia after Donald Trump's controversial decision to remove US troops from northwestern Syria. The idealistic future that the original revolution hoped for is almost certainly not going to materialise.
For Sama will leave you feeling helpless. But desperate to do something. So what? Helping people figure that out is what comes next for Waad. She's setting up a campaign called Action For Sama which will work to provide aid and relief to Syrians affected by targeted attacks on hospitals & civilians and is inviting people to get involved. So do it. Still in the early stages, their website can be found here and their Twitter account here. Reach out, get involved and for God's sake, encourage everyone you know to watch this film.