SXSW Review: ‘For Sama’ is a Necessary Watch About the Syrian Civil War

Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has been a hotbed for controversy regarding international diplomacy, human rights, and political revolution. The war has taken on a complex geopolitical identity that has multiple sides, factions, and countries vying for control of the region, and it has lasted so long, becoming so intricate that the average American has limited understanding of its implications. It takes something like For Sama to remind us of the very real reality taking place in Syria. With incredible documentation, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts show the war through a human perspective where audiences bear witness to an incredibly difficult watch, but one that is necessary for raising awareness about the conflict. 

The film is narrated by al-Kateab as she looks back at her time in Syria and addresses her daughter, Sama. From the day the revolution breaks to the day she flees the country, al-Kateab traces the important moments in her life that happened in the middle of the war, and what that means for the future of the country.

Through violence, injury, and death, al-Kateab and Watts paint a bloody picture of the Syrian Civil War, but they ground it with the people who experience the conflict. To see a city full of life devolve into complete ruin is unworldly, yet al-Kateab speaks about her country with such tender affection that you come to understand why a family would stay—even with young children. Self-sacrifice and revolution are married as revolutionaries like al-Kateab and her husband put everything on the line and stay in Syria with the hope that their children will not have to live under Bashir al-Assad. But as the war rages on, the film transitions into the possibility that the children themselves will have to bring about change, a somber and sympathetic message for a country whose fate is uncertain.

This thematic element flows through the narration of the doc. The personal address and the subjects it covers makes the film feel like an intimate testimony and reflection, a letter that Sama will someday read, and when she does, there will be an optimism for the future despite the current situation.

The documentary avoids the diplomatic aspects of the conflict in favor of the interpersonal relationships that highlight the lives of those surviving the conflict, especially those of children. Sama is what al-Kateab positions as the future of the country— children who have only grown up in conflict and have lived through unimaginable ordeals. The film explicitly details these ordeals, events nothing short of horrifying. As I write, a scene of a child’s birth is hard to forget, and I can’t help but get a little emotional thinking about it. The footage is remarkably powerful at showing the on-the-ground travesties—and as this article’s title suggests, is disturbing but 100% necessary to understand the conflict.

As outsiders, we have little idea of the situation from an American perspective. Headlines and chyrons only go so far, spurring interest in a war across the globe, but failing to show the full impact. A film like For Sama gets the viewer closer. It’s a documentary that shows the longevity and human impact of the Syrian Civil War in ways news coverage can’t capture, and hopefully, that difference makes people more cognizant and active to the situation at hand.

4/5 Stars