In 92 years of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s tradition of awarding filmmakers, only 5 times has a woman been nominated for Best Director. Their names are Kathryn Bigelow(The Hurt Locker/won), Lina Wertmuller(Seven Beauties), Jane Campion(The Piano), Sofia Coppola(Lost in Translation), and Greta Gerwig(Ladybird). When the 2020 Academy Award Nominations came out the usual discussions took place among movie fans. All of the hype surrounds the hottest race: Best Director. Who will it be? Will it be Quentin Tarantino for his two and a half hour film about an aging Hollywood actor and his best buddy that ends with a violent twist to one of the most violent episodes in Hollywood history? Or will it be Martin Scorsese for his even longer three hour epic about a murderer who had to be played by an aging Robert DeNiro made to look like he was 50 years younger? Don’t count out Todd Phillips who decided to throw the Comic Book film model on its head by not making a movie about the Heroes but instead about the Villain who becomes…you guessed it, a murderer! Little do these 3 men, or the Academy for that matter, know that there is a director that in 2019 blew all 3 of their films combined out of the water. And this Director is a WOMAN.
This woman, Waad Al-Kateab, is the director of the Oscar nominated documentary “For Sama.” To say this movie is breathtaking and powerful would be a gross understatement. It is the story of a girl who moved to the city of Aleppo to study and stayed there, fell in love, got married, had a baby girl named Sama, was pregnant with her second child when she was finally forced to flee the city of Aleppo in December 2016. Waad used her camera to document all of those happy moments that I just mentioned but she also wanted to document the siege of Aleppo from a perspective no one else got to see until now which sadly is too late. The footage she captured is beyond shocking. Her original plan for filming the siege was to try and get the outside world’s attention and show them the atrocities being committed by the Syrian and Russian forces. Along with her husband, Hamza Al-Kateab, who is a doctor, and their friends, they set up a makeshift hospital in the city. Watching the camera shake and hearing the blasts of missiles and rockets is nothing compared to seeing the scores of casualties being dragged into the hospital. As a spoiler I can tell you that this is not for the faint of heart and while the efforts of Hamza and Waad and their friends are beyond heroic, they were definitely fighting a losing battle to put it mildly.
Throughout the film Waad narrates and explains that this film is a message to her daughter, Sama. Sama was born in Aleppo in 2015 just as the siege led by the brutal forces of Bashar al Assad and backed strongly by the Russian military, was about to enter its most violent stage. This little miracle named Sama drinks her bottle, plays with her toys, and smiles at the camera all while she is shown at other moments being carried through dust from an explosion or cowering from the loud explosions right outside her window. I don’t know how Waad found such strength, courage, determination to document this horror even if it meant handing off Sama to a friend when there was a missile attack and she wanted to grab her camera to film.
For Sama is a film that the world needs to see. Waad Al-Kateab masterfully tells her story about moving to a new city, studying, making friends, falling in love, getting married and starting a family. This is a universal story. However, she also captures something that some of her male colleagues from Hollywood can hopefully learn from, even at their old age. Waad showed the world the destruction of her city and country by an oppressive regime. More than anything though, she showed violence, only her violence is not “cinematic.” It’s the type of violence most people can’t even imagine exists and at the same time hopes and prays that they never have to experience it the same way Waad and Hamza and most importantly Sama experienced it.