The shot lasts only about seventeen seconds, a simple downward tilt. First we see Sama, the young daughter of journalist and filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, being held by her father, Hamza, a doctor. She’s happily playing with what appears to be a stuffed animal (mostly obscured by someone’s arm in the foreground). But this is happening in an emergency room, and the tilt reveals another child, lying on a gurney, his wrists and ankles tied together. The emotional content of this scene pulses all the way through al-Kateab’s heart-wrenching film For Sama: the unsettling mélange of guilt and gratitude, grief and hope, when your child has survived while so many others around you are dead. Words fail in the face of that; a picture truly is more profound. For Sama is a personal nonfiction film, an act of advocacy and reportage from the heart of a besieged Aleppo during the ongoing Syrian conflict. The filmmaker’s narration, directed at her daughter, who was born in 2015, calls to mind an earlier wartime chronicle, A Diary for Timothy, made by Humphrey Jennings in 1945.
A Diary for Timothy is the more openly poetic of the two films, its narration written by the novelist E.M. Forster and read by Michael Redgrave. In the middle of the film, we see John Gielgud as Hamlet on the London stage, considering Yorick’s skull — the scene spliced together first with a discussion of missile velocity at an army mess table and then the clearing of bombed-out rubble. The Timothy of the title is not the director’s son, but merely a representative of a particular group (“one of the lucky ones”). Over the course of the film’s thirty-seven minutes, Timothy comes to stand in for the future itself, its hopes and its hazards. Great Britain at the end of 1944 and early 1945 was no longer besieged by the enemy, as the tide of World War II had finally turned. As such, the most eye-opening feature of A Diary for Timothy is the dangerous work of removing mines and barbed wire from the southern beaches of the island, now that the feared invasion could at last be ruled out. This is as clear a metaphor as can be imagined for the new priorities of peacetime.
With victory in sight, Jennings could turn his eye to more complex issues than he broached in some of his earlier wartime propaganda. Though the soundtrack includes radio broadcasts reporting on the final movements of the United States and the Red Army on their way to Berlin, the images are always of the home front: the coal miners, health care workers and farmers, the children and families. Far from triumphant, the mood is wary and sometimes mournful, always taking care to count the cost. One of the most moving sequences is a collective toast at Christmas to “absent friends.” Near the end, the question naturally arises of how to break the cycle so that a World War III doesn’t happen. What would Britain do with its victory, its survival? What kind of world would Timothy experience?
The question of what we bequeath to the next generation is very much at the forefront of Waad al-Kateab’s mind as well, at a much more intimate level. Her dilemma, after all, was how to square the increasing danger of bringing up a daughter in Aleppo (and a second one on the way, born soon before the family evacuated to live in England) with the necessity of both her work and her husband’s work. Arguably, attempting to leave was just as dangerous as staying anyway, but there’s no question that documenting the atrocities of the Assad regime — bombing the hospitals of its own people — was a vitally important act of bravery. Five hundred hours of al-Kateab’s footage had to be smuggled out of the country with the family.
In England, the documentarian Edward Watts helped her fashion a 95-minute film from all that footage, a film that carefully juxtaposes the devastation and violence with a lovely portrait of the al-Kateab family: the joy of Hamza and Waad’s wedding, the personality of her baby-themed tee shirts, and above all the open, inquisitive face of Sama. In addition to the more straightforward advocacy, there is some reflexive commentary on technology, from the periodic use of a drone to capture overviews of the increasingly broken city, to the deployment of internet videos as part of al-Kateab’s journalism. A scene in a maternity ward (not involving Sama) is, in its way, perhaps the most astonishing moment of any film of the past decade, but a later scene reveals that those images had already been reported internationally years before the film itself was released. The director ponders whether a video that has received a million views will translate into real change or not.
For both of these films, the thought of a simple nonfiction movie having a genuinely positive political impact seems to be mostly an unrealized dream. The leftist Jennings did not live long enough to see how future British governments would turn away from the social reforms for which he advocated. Bashar al-Assad and an assortment of allies and enemies are still ravaging Syria, devastating cities and forcing millions to become refugees. Waad al-Kateab performed a valuable service, showing not only the destruction, but also the resilience and creativity of the protesters who kept fighting even when it seemed hopeless. The problem is that, no matter how powerful her images are, the social media barrage means that people will look at them, feel terrible, and then move on to the next horrifying image, which will, in turn, be consumed and forgotten. Maybe it isn’t always as bad as that. We’ve seen, throughout 2020, some attempts to synthesize the ongoing health crisis with the ongoing state-sanctioned violence crisis, and we’ve seen the occasional halting, contentious effort to link them with related crises around the world. Progress is possible, but it’s a ruthless struggle, one that can’t be tackled by a single generation alone. This is, ultimately, what both films convey as they look, with hope and fear, at a newborn child.