For Sama ★★★★

Towards the beginning of Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ “For Sama” — a bracingly horrific yet resiliently beautiful documentary about al-Kateab’s experience as a woman, a patriot, and a mother living in the ruined heart of Aleppo during the ongoing war in Syria — a few medical volunteers are seen messing around in a hospital during a break from the shelling. They’re young and smiling and you would never know what they were living through if not for the blasted concrete on the floor and the wet blood on their clothes. A few years earlier, they were regular university students pursuing regular careers; now, a normal day consists of avoiding bombs and burying friends.

Why don’t they leave? How could they stay? What inspires someone to scrap for the ashes of a country where local jihadists, foreign warplanes, and even their own president are competing to exterminate them? The men find some art supplies amidst the rubble, and start writing thick black letters on each others’ faces. One of them looks into al-Kateab’s camera and spells it out for us with a rebel smile: “It’s beautiful to have the word ‘freedom’ painted across my forehead.”

“For Sama” may not be the first documentary to offer the world a vivid glimpse of the unimaginable suffering of the Syrian people (“Last Men in Aleppo,” “City of Ghosts,” and “Of Fathers and Sons” are just some of the many remarkable pinholes that filmmakers have poked into the cruelest ongoing war of the 21st century), but where its predecessors have often literally salvaged life from the clutches of death, al-Kateab and Watts invert that dynamic.

For all of its abject horror — epitomized by frequent images of dead children, and a heart-scarring birth sequence that feels like the single worst thing ever caught on camera until it’s suddenly redeemed by a miracle — “For Sama” isn’t a nightmare with pockets of joy so much as it’s a collective dream that’s playing out under a cloud of impenetrable darkness.

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