Movie Review – For Sama: A Mother and Child in the Syrian Civil War

From June 19th, 2020

Sometimes, I just need to cry. Sometimes, I don’t even know that I needed to cry until it happens. Last night was one of those nights.

The last few months have been difficult. I will explain more in a future post, but briefly: my job at the University of Pittsburgh ended in April. Because of Covid, I did not feel like I was able to have closure on my time there. I have been on the job market for the last year, and I was offered a dream job at another college. Unfortunately, the job was rescinded because of Covid. Luckily, my family has been incredibly supportive. There are no other people that I would rather get trapped inside a house with for three months. However, I had not fully mourned the end of my career with Pitt and the loss of the dream job. So, Jess and I watched a movie last night with this emotional energy backed up inside of me.

The movie that Jess and I watched was For Sama presented by PBS Frontline (Full film posted at the end of this entry). The movie is based in Allepo, Syria at the height of the civil / sectarian / proxy war. For five years, the film follows Waad al-Kateab’s experiences in an active war zone. She frames the movie as a letter to her daughter Sama, who is born in that war zone. If you do not know much about the war in Syria, here are a couple of brief explainer videos that are helpful:

The war in Syria is complicated, and there are many different aspects to consider, but ultimately it is a war that started because of instability in the region from the Iraq war and millions of refugees entering Syria (more on refugees and how to help here). Then, ethnic and religious tensions exacerbated the war and ISIS took advantage. Finally, the US and Russia decided to use the instability as a chance to fight a proxy war in Syria. Here is an infographic (from the Atlantic) that I sometimes use to show how confusing the situation can be:

The top of this infographic shows the civil war and the allies on each side. Then, the sectarian alliances are on the bottom left, and the allies in the proxy war on the right (A more recent description here). Because we were allied with the Gulf States, who are Sunni, and ISIS is also considered Sunni, there were actually times during this war that the US and ISIS were trying to accomplish the same goals and missions. That is how tangled this situation has been.

Because of this war, the cities of Allepo, Damascus, Homs, and others have been decimated. Here are just a few before and after photos (from BBC):

The pictures above are a shopping district, business district, banking sector, and a religious site. The last picture is of the Umayyad Mosque (or, Great Mosque of Damascus), which is considered to be the oldest mosque in the world. This mosque is where most Muslims believe Jesus will return in the End Times. Many Muslims believe that Jesus will return from Heaven to the Jesus Minaret and defeat the Anti-Christ. As is clear in the pictures, it was destroyed. Each side blames the other for the destruction of the mosque, with some believing it was the Syrian government, others the rebels, US forces, or Russian forces. Regardless, it was destroyed.

In the middle of all of this destruction, is Waad al-Kateab and the man who will become her husband, Hamza, in the city of Allepo. They are native Syrians who, as university students, begin protesting against the Assad regime. As the protests began, Waad and many of the students were overjoyed. A few years previously, protests from the Arab Spring toppled dictators from Tunisia and Egypt. The students were hopeful that their protests would be successful as well.

Picture from: Ung Bun Hueng 2011

Unfortunately, Syria had already been destabilized from the Iraq war and millions of refugees. As the country fell into a civil war, ISIS began attacks that exacerbated an already bad situation. Then, the US and Russia decided to use Syria as a proxy war (here is another view of the proxy wars). In the movie, Waad and Hamza are having to hide and barricade themselves in buildings to avoid a constant barrage of Syrian government (Assad) and Russian missiles and bombs. They set up shop in two different hospitals. In each location, the bombs end up overwhelming them and many people die. Hamza is a doctor who tries to save as many lives as he can, while Waad, a journalist, documents the events.

A scene from the documentary “For Sama” in which a man, woman, and child stand looking at the bombed remains of a building where someone has spray painted, “We don’t want to leave, we were forced to flee.”

The most powerful aspect of the movie is that Waad and Hamza have a baby in the middle of this chaos named Sama. Seeing the destruction through Sama’s eyes emphasizes the insanity and the horror of the situation. What will baffle many viewers is that Waad and Hamza end up having a chance to let Sama escape from the death and destruction, yet they decide they cannot leave her behind. This decision, while excruciating to watch, shows how passionate Waad and Hamza are about creating a new Syria.

A scene from the documentary “For Sama” showing a toddler amid the wreckage of Aleppo holding a sign that reads, “What’s justice.”

While watching this movie, all of my emotions that had been backed up in the last three months began to flow through my stomach, throat, and eyes. I began to see how small my struggles are in comparison to the every day life of millions of people throughout the world. This is not to minimize my struggles; instead, it provided some much needed perspective.

Petra, Jordan

The movie also made me reflect on my last fifteen years in Indiana, PA. When I moved to Indiana, I only knew a few people from outside the US. It was not until I started my doctoral degree that I was given the privilege of meeting people from many non-western countries. Then, when I met my wife, who works in international education, I became friends with many more people from all over the world. I have had a few close friends from Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and the surrounding countries. A good friend from this area, who has kids the same ages as our kids, recently recounted how their children hear bombs in their beds at night. I see their family in similar terms as I see my own. Yet, our children will most likely never hear those sounds. It is not just.

The movie also made me reflect on my experiences teaching. For example, I decided to teach my research class based on non-western cultures from the many conversations I have had with these friends from other cultures. Through this experience, I have invited speakers from at least 30 different countries to come speak to my classes. There have been some moments that have brought happiness, new friendships, and others that have brought tears.

For example, I had an American soldier in one of my classes who used derogatory terms about Middle Easterners every time the subject came up in class. I had numerous conversations with him throughout the semester, yet he refused to stop. I then had two speakers from the Middle East come into my class who did presentations for my students. The entire time, I was nervous about what the soldier was going to say. He stayed silent.

At the end of the presentation, the soldier waited in a short line to talk to the speakers. When he got to the front, he had tears in his eyes, as he explained about his service in Iraq. He said he had been in a ten block square in Baghdad and the only Iraqis he met “lived like animals”. He said that is the only way he could see them. He finished by thanking the speakers, saying that it was the first time he had ever seen the humanity in someone from the Middle East.

All of these emotions and memories flooded to the forefront of my mind as we watched For Sama. The movie is difficult to watch. It is also important to watch. Sometimes it takes seeing the world through the eyes of a baby to see common humanity and also to see the insanity of our conflicts. Here is the full film for free:

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