War and the Female Gaze in Waad al-Kateab’s ‘For Sama’


By Bijaya Biswal

“no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land,
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one chooses refugee camps or strip searches where your body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer than a city of fire.”

I could comprehend the desperation and desolation in Warsen Shire’s poem Home in its true sense only after watching Waad al-Kateab’s For Sama when it was screened as a part of the MAMI Year Round Program this month. The documentary opens in the streets of Aleppo, Syria in 2011 when the Syrian civil war was about to begin between the incumbent Bashar al-Assad government (backed by Russia) and the opposition, politically represented by the Syrian National Coalition, but logistically and financially allied with the U.S, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. A young al-Kateab arms herself with a camera around men equipped with snipers and tells us the story of a war from the perspective of a woman. She walks past streets laced with landmines, boldly staring back at a sky that rains bombs and bullets. Al-Kateab’s For Sama is a female perspective not just because of the voice but also the gaze; the story of a war being told not as a sport of valiance and power but a game of losing and losing. Women aren’t always at the frontline of the army or the receiving end of martyrdom and the ironical Nobel Peace Prizes. They are the ones who are left behind to gather after the hunting. The ones who live to witness that victory and defeat both taste alike, both taste like blood. Always widowed, always weeping. They carry the incinerated bodies of their children back home or are seen hopelessly looking for them under the bricks and mortar of an exploded city. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you makes you regret having survived. Sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be more blinding than the darkness. The masculine and mighty definition of nation-state makes us forget that nations are built of families and households. Can justice come only at the cost of human lives? Can peace come solely from nuclearization? Do we always have to choose between dying with human rights and living without them? Waad struggles to find answers as she captures not the war, but the human beings at war and the unaccountable sacrifices no one gives those medals for.

Hospitals explode. Houses crumble down. Helicopters patrol the smoky starless sky of Aleppo, making sure no one is left alive. Waad finds herself falling in love with Hamza, one of the doctors who also chose to stay back and work for the Syrians that did not flee. Feelings are the most unexpected and powerful invasions. They are bound by no law, lack any regard of circumstances or consequences. Waad and Hamza take their wedding vows while firebombs instead of firecrackers blow up outside their windows. As the militants struggle to capture their city, the newlywed couple smiles in the photographs which capture their happiness along with their fear. In the next scene, little hearts surviving on ventilators decide to give up. More dead children pour in, with missing limbs, charred beyond identification, reduced to tiny heaps of dust mixed with gunpowder. “Children have nothing to do with this,” says one of the nurses as he breaks down, the sound of his crying overwhelmed by the noise of explosions in the background. In an intimate moment, Waad records herself rehearsing ways to break the news of her pregnancy to her husband.

Death is so certain and regular in Syria that the people eventually start taking the casualties casually. They crack jokes, laugh when they can, watch their children play in the patches of land which haven’t been hit yet. Kids are unaware of what a siege is, but they know they are losing their friends. Some have been killed; some have left in boats for another city. Schools go on as usual in classrooms with blackened walls and broken roofs. Students take time to choose the right crayons for their drawings. They are optimistic as children should be, but heartbroken as children of war often are. “I want to be an architect to rebuild Aleppo,” one of the children mutters and scampers away to play with his friends in a burnt bus. Svetlana Alexievich asked in her book Last Witnesses that compiled testimonies of children who lived through World War II: “How can we preserve our planet on which little girls are supposed to sleep in their beds, and not lie dead on the road with unplaited pigtails? And so that childhood would never again be called war-time childhood.” Waad’s relatives wait outside the labour room door and shriek in joy when they hear a newborn child. Sama is born to Hamza and Waad, as simultaneously a bombed nine-month pregnant woman is admitted in the hospital. The problem with hope is, it is vulnerable to reality.

A moment in the film shows a snowfall gently gracing the broken city. The citizens welcome it with love and relief, as if it could wash away the bloodstains from the roads, as if it could heal their wounds, as if it could bring back their sons. When their friends start dying, Waad and Hamza decide to leave the city with their relatives. “I wish I hadn’t given birth to you, I wish hadn’t met Hamza,” she whispers to Sama in grief and despair. Pregnant with a second child, she holds Sama in her arms and walks through the streets of Aleppo for the last time.

Aleppo reminds me of Srinagar, a city always on guard by army officers, with light pouring into evacuated inhabitable houses from the holes left by pellets on their walls, streets filled with over-written slogans of resistance and defiance. Javed Dar’s or Dar Yasin’s Kashmir Valley is different from Masrat Zahra’s Kashmir Valley. The former captures the stone wars and solidarity, the anger and violence, while the latter captures the aftermath, the resilience and endurance. “Everything that we know about the war we were told by men,” wrote Svetlana Alexievich in The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. When women found themselves in the army during World War II and realized that gallantry meant indifference towards death and bloodshed, they concluded there was more meaning in midwifery and weaving back home, than in this pompous, patriarchal display of power on the front line . “While Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests, whereas women are caught up with feelings,” she wrote. But after the wars are over, the national pride is saved and history is rewritten, one must come to terms of being human, and feel whatever he had repressed as yet. “The battle ended during the night. In the morning fresh snow fell,” says one of the veterans. “Under it the dead… Many had their arms raised up… toward the sky… You ask me: what is happiness? I answer… To suddenly find a living man among the dead…”

Bijaya Biswal
is a doctor and LGBTQIA+ rights activist based out of Bhubaneswar. She also organises the Indian Film Festival of Bhubaneswar (IFFB) and Indian Documentary Film Festival of Bhubaneswar (IDFFB).


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