Film & TV

For Sama: A Chronicle of the Syrian Tragedy

For Sama (PBS Distribution)
In a wrenching documentary, a young mother tells the story of Syria’s resistance—and the forces that crushed it.

It seems somehow profane that, outside of the Near East, the Syrian ordeal is not heard of much anymore. Then again, it never really was.

The course of events that reduced Syria to its present condition began in March 2011 when Syrians took their place in the great revolts sweeping Arab lands and marched against the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad. With undaunted courage, these demonstrators called for regime change under the roof of a regime that did not possess the will to change. What the Assad government did possess, and amply so, were the means of repression, which it wielded against the luckless Sunni majority without mercy.

Syria’s Baathist security services, men of the mukhabarat, unleashed such extravagant violence on the protesters that they could not even see fit to spare a 13-year-old named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, who had scrawled an anti-regime slogan in the southern town of Dara. After a month in captivity, Hamza’s body was returned to his parents lifeless and appallingly disfigured by torture. Instead of falling silent at this wanton display of official sadism, the democracy movement soon flared into a full-fledged armed rebellion.

The story of Syria’s attempted democratic revolution is an unmitigated tragedy. As the struggle intensified, the hereditary regime in Damascus’s growing catalogue of atrocities and massacres helped usher the rebellion into an ethnic and sectarian civil war. Assad’s declared “anti-terrorist” campaign, like his father’s in Hama decades before, failed to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants, and actually concentrated fire on liberal elements of the opposition, thereby empowering the more hardline holy warriors, e.g., al-Qaeda and ISIS.

After initial hesitation, President Obama declared that Assad must go, but without lending more than grudging assistance to rebel groups fighting to achieve that outcome. (These rebels were relentlessly, and quite falsely, belittled by the leader of the free world as little more than “farmers, pharmacists, and doctors.”) The “red line” that would, if crossed, spur America’s military intervention, Obama pronounced, would be Assad’s use of chemical weapons. When Assad deployed these ghastly armaments against civilians in a suburb of Damascus in 2013, however, the punitive measures never materialized. Instead, the White House abruptly deferred to the Kremlin, Assad’s ally and patron, to hold the dictator to account for his crimes against humanity. This episode illustrated in sharp relief that, whatever the human cost, Syrians would be left to fend for themselves. Before long, the entire subject disappeared from public discussion.

A small but resilient camp remains unreconciled to the pervasive silence that hangs over what has been called Syria’s impossible revolution. They will find encouragement in a rich and heart-wrenching new documentary that sheds light not only on the powerful enemies of the Syrian resistance, but on the ardent sentiments for freedom that brought it about.

For Sama is a missive from a young mother, Waad al-Kateab, to her daughter, elegantly telling the story of al-Kateab’s life through five harrowing years of the uprising in her beloved Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city. The film opens with this “headstrong” narrator begging her daughter’s forgiveness for bringing her into the world at the very moment it looked to be falling apart. Al-Kateab’s labor is suffused with the hope that one day Sama might understand “what we were fighting for.”

Scenes of protest in early 2012 at the University of Aleppo, a locus of opposition politics, set the stage. The Syrian people were “drowning in corruption, injustice, and oppression,” al-Kateab narrates, and the source of the malady is not hard to discern.

Syria’s state and society had been beggared and hollowed out by decades of dictatorship and the “divide-and-rule” tactics by which the Alawite minority maintained its tenuous grip on power. As the dogged throngs of students raised their voices against the dictator and defaced murals of his thuggish visage, their chant resonated: “We’ll live in dignity or die.”

This came as something of a surprise, and not only to the moribund regime. The seat of Syrian commerce and enterprise, Aleppo has long been considered a city brimming with pragmatism and prudence. It was in Damascus, according to the received wisdom, where the banners of pan-Arabism and other great political causes would be unfurled. In Aleppo, by contrast, the merchant class could be expected to make the accommodations necessary to carry on with business as usual. However, when their countrymen began to defy the mighty Assad dynasty, Aleppo did not try to wait out the storm. Al-Kateab seems to intone the prevailing spirit of the city when she asserts that “the only thing we cared about was the revolution.”

After the rebels freed the eastern half of Aleppo, the government began to pitilessly strafe and bomb dense civilian areas. The instruments of terror it deployed ranged from tanks shells and rockets to cluster bombs and “barrel bombs” filled with nails, shrapnel, even chlorine gas. This indiscriminate bombardment, followed by the use of a blockade and siege to starve civilians, began to turn Aleppo into a city of the dead, which was the intended effect. Al-Kateab’s camera unsparingly captures only a fragment of the obscene consequences, which are almost too much to stomach: Scores of bodies retrieved from a river bearing marks of hideous torture; two brothers no older than ten years of age staining their brother’s corpse with tears; a woman clothed in a niqab carrying a limp baby while issuing warnings to those nearby not to dare take her dead child from her.

Under these circumstances, the 32 doctors operating in eastern Aleppo took on outsized importance. One of these, Dr. Hamza, a leading protagonist in this drama, is the husband of Waad and father of Sama. The contrast between this brave, rational, decent doctor risking his life—and, by extension, that of his precious wife and daughter—to save the lives of others, and the grotesque ophthalmologist whose lust for power manifested itself in orders to burn the country, could hardly be more stark. (The juxtaposition is a corrective to the ugly anti-interventionist injunction heard from the earliest days of the Syrian conflict to “let Allah sort it out.”) Hamza worked in one of the nine hospitals of eastern Aleppo, each of which constituted an essential refuge and infirmary to a city under siege. It was no accident that each would eventually be felled by Syrian and Russian airstrikes. Little wonder, then, that al-Kateab laments her “happiness would vanish with every appearance of a Russian airplane.”

Taking flight from this battered and besieged city, and quitting the country altogether, was surely a respectable option, but not one that carried much appeal to al-Kateab’s family. The contributions this young couple were making to a worthy cause seemed infinitely more important than the risk of being crushed under a slab of concrete. “In rebel Aleppo, we lived in a free country,” al-Kateab proclaims. It is easy to feel, even from afar, the tonic that this new and hard-won status must have provided after decades of servitude and fear. Or to put the same point another way, it is difficult to overstate how dispiriting it would have been for an individual fortified by a bracing sense of freedom to abandon the nascent democratic and civil-society movements that imparted such purpose. One small measure of the Syrian tragedy is that such idealism and sacrifice did not win the day, and Aleppo fell.

More than eight years after Syria’s democratic rebellion broke out, there has been no resolution of this grim, ruinous war. Its key fault line has shifted to Idlib, the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold in the northwest of the country, which may become this year’s Aleppo. Somehow, as Syria’s descent into the abyss continues apace, the scope of the calamity that has already come to pass is difficult to gauge. The statistics as we know them (compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) are chilling: a half-million Syrians dead, 100,000 detained and missing, more than 6 million internally displaced, and another 6 million forced to flee abroad. Syria has become a veritable failed state, but even beyond the physical and human destruction, the crisis has fomented a parade of horribles: the destabilization of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan; the spread of sectarian strife from Beirut to Baghdad; the consolidation of Iranian hegemony in the region; the return of Russia as a global power; the refugee crisis in Europe and its attendant ills; and the diminishment of the American position in the world.

It is worth dwelling on this last item. The remarkable thing about For Sama is the utter absence of American power from its every frame. This isn’t exactly news to anybody who knows anything of Syria’s agony, which has been greatly assisted by American abdication, but it remains incredible to recall that while Syria was being methodically torn asunder by a monstrous coalition of states, the United States watched it all with folded arms. It’s true that eventually a small contingent of American boots were deployed to Syrian soil, but only to cut the jihadist forces down to size. On the great strategic questions roiling that fractured and bitterly contested land, the United States has abstained almost without stint, preserving neither its interests nor its honor.

For Sama is a brilliant exposition of the Syrian tragedy that is at once profound, moving, and excruciating. In assembling a thumbnail depiction of Assad’s cruel war, al-Kateab does not prettify events or protect the viewer from the worst. The sanitization of this struggle would only serve to obscure its true nature and inhibit a proper understanding of the radical evil at work in it.

The ultimate purpose of the revolution is finally revealed to Sama as “the most important cause of all: so you wouldn’t have to live as we did.” It is no criticism to say that the film exploits Syria’s desperate plight by extracting lurid images of unfathomable human suffering. In exchange, it offers a young girl a glimpse of the high purposes that stirred her homeland and, in the bargain, equips the rest of us to take the measure of the most disgraceful episode of American statecraft in this century.

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