Two new films about sieges in later modern war…. tragically not the contradiction in terms you might think.
The first is a documentary about Syria, For Sama, which won the prize for Best Documentary at Cannes this year (and has garnered a host of other awards, including the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs Festival).
Here is G. Allen Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle – and, given my work on the Assad regime’s systematic attacks on hospitals and medical care you will see why this is so important to me:
The civil war in Syria is horrific, is killing innocent civilians and is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. It could make you lose your faith in humanity, and who could blame any residents there if they did?
And yet, out of the ashes of conflict comes “For Sama,” a remarkable documentary … about a doctor struggling to care for civilian war casualties in a makeshift hospital in the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo, his journalist wife who documents it, and their infant daughter.
It is hard-hitting and graphic — some scenes cause you to look away. Yet it’s also loving and warm, a remarkable blend of reporting, cinema verite and essay not to be missed.
Waad Al-Khateab, who sent footage and reports from Aleppo to Channel 4 in London, also shot much personal footage. She and British filmmaker Edward Watts, who is credited with her as director, shaped the footage into the story of her family in the form of an essay. Her narration speaks to her daughter Sama — an explanation of why she and her husband Hamza stayed instead of taking her to safety.
“I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did,” Waad says.
The answer is they believe in freedom and humanity. Waad began covering the outbreak of civil war as a student in 2011. Hamza is a doctor who must save every life he can. “This is our path, this is our life,” he tells Waad.
The bulk of the film takes place in 2016, when constant bombing by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad— which include Russian aircraft — turn much of the city into rubble. The dead and wounded number in the thousands.
So there are intense, bloody scenes in the E.R., where lives are lost and saved. Meanwhile, Sama is being raised with the constant sound of exploding bombs. Waad does her best to comfort and raise her.
The family loses their beautiful home in the shelling, and eventually Hamza’s hospital is also destroyed (Assad’s forces specifically targeted places such as hospitals). Hamza and his team locate a building that would not be on Assad’s maps that would be suitable as a makeshift hospital — and home, as they will all live there — buttressed by thousands of sandbags as buffer against bombs.
Teo Bugbee in the New York Times adds:
“For Sama” provides a coherent account of a humanitarian crisis from the perspective of the wounded and displaced.
But just as crucially, and perhaps more compellingly, al-Kateab’s reflexive filmmaking provides an uncannily relatable example of the mundane experience of war. Profound bravery exists alongside profound ordinariness; friends still gather for dinner, they still tell their children bedtime stories, they still have to cook and clean and sleep.
The activists of this film, including al-Kateab herself, don’t speak in the language of philosophers or politicians. Their quotidian aspirations — to build a garden, to send their children safely to school — demonstrate the brutality of the government’s response, but they also invite viewers to picture themselves in the shoes of these modest political dissidents. Unselfconsciously, “For Sama” prompts audience members to ask themselves: How long would you defy tyranny if your world was coming down around you?
The second film is Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell’s Gaza:
It’s hard to imagine anybody living a normal life in the Gaza Strip. Frequently labeled as the world’s largest open-air prison, it makes an appearance on news reports every time a confrontation erupts between Israel and Hamas. From TV sets thousands of miles away, this tiny piece of land has been reduced to an image of violence, chaos and destruction. So what do the people do when they’re not under siege?
The Gaza which is seldom seen is ordinary, everyday Gaza, a coastal strip which measures just twenty-five miles by six and which is home to an eclectic mix of almost two million people. Gaza cannot be understood in a purely political context or by analyzing tragic sound bites during conflict. It can only be understood by immersion, by living amongst its people and by recognizing and exploring its rich social diversity and cultural subtleties.
GAZA will introduce the audience to the surprising and the unexpected, the unfamiliar stories that portray its true face. It takes an atypical approach to finding out what makes this remarkable place tick as it introduces to the world extraordinary stories of everyday characters leading ordinary lives.
GAZA depicts a people plagued by conflict but not defined by it and as we journey through the physically broken and battered landscape, we let our cast of characters speak for themselves. Through them we gain a nuanced understanding of what life is really like for its citizens and by extension, grow and foster a rare familiarity and affinity with this truly unique place, as we build towards a tender portrait of a beleaguered humanity.
I’ve written about siege warfare in an extended series of posts (here, here, here and here). You can find my posts on Gaza by using the GUIDE tab (above), and I really recommend Ron Smith‘s excellent work on siege warfare in Gaza: Healthcare under siege: ‘Geopolitics of medical service provision in the Gaza Strip’, Social science and medicine 146 (2015) 332-40; ‘Isolation through humanitarianism: Subaltern geopolitics of the siege on Gaza’, Antipode 48 (2016) 750-759; ‘Israel’s permanent siege of Gaza’. Middle East Report 290 (2019) here