For Sama, a new documentary from award-winning Syrian journalist Waad al-Kateab, has won global acclaim. She talks about filming and family life on the frontline
The camera focuses on Sama’s face. She is the sweetest baby and looks, at first glance, as though her life might be ordinary. Her eyes are a transitory newborn colour, greyish green, waiting to turn brown. Her gold earrings look over-large in her tiny ears. Sama means sky in Arabic – a sky, as her mother imagines it, where no bombs fall, with ordinary clouds and sunshine. So far, this is footage that could be the work of any doting parent, but Sama’s mother is journalist Waad al-Kateab and this is her documentary For Sama, filmed during the Syrian war. In the film al-Kateab sings a lullaby that almost lulls us – if not Sama – into a false sense of security. Sama is chewing her toe investigatively, as babies do, when a tank shell explodes. It sounds like a nightmare next-door neighbour heaving heavy furniture about and there is a shout: “Downstairs, downstairs, there’s another one coming…” It is the summer of 2016, the beginning of the siege of Aleppo. The camera loses focus, swerves incoherently. Al-Kateab calmly asks someone to “take Sama”. By now, the shells are deafening.
“This is insane – we’re getting this every day,” she goes on in her low, musical voice – her calm as abnormal as her situation (during the siege there were cluster bombs, chlorine gas, barrel bombs and air strikes). There is fire at the end of their corridor and smoke pours in. They live in the hospital that her husband, Hamza, has started from scratch. And now they are moving a baby on life support and Hamza is shouting: “Come on! We need to pump the ventilators by hand.” In the dark, al-Kateab calls out: “Who’s got Sama?”