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The year is 2015. Syria’s brutal civil war has been ravaging the country since the government responded with force to civil protests during the Arab Spring in 2011. Regime, Kurdish, ISIS and rebel forces all occupy various parts of the city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria. A volunteer group called the White Helmets provides emergency services to traumatized residents in the rebel-occupied areas of the city. A crucial part of their efforts is rescuing survivors: After air attacks reduce buildings to rubble, the men of the White Helmets dig through the debris and pull survivors to safety. They are nothing short of heroes.
The White Helmets are the subject of Last Men in Aleppo, the searing documentary directed by Feras Fayyad that won the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Captured with incredible intimacy and urgency, Last Men in Aleppo shows the White Helmets at work in the wake of bombing raids. The film provides exceptional access. Volunteers wear microphones for the filming, and viewers can hear them as they share information, give directions and pray. When they learn of a raid, they speed through chaotic streets full of rubble. They dig through piles of concrete and metal, sometimes using construction equipment, other times their bare hands.
The viewing is often visceral and difficult. Fayyad’s cameras are unflinching as they document the extraction of dead bodies, including those of children. Survivors are badly injured and covered in blood. There is grim talk of body parts, of how many survived and how many died. “I’m 100 percent sure we will find his head on the roof,” a White Helmet says of a victim at the site of a bombing.
In these painful moments, the men of the White Helmets reveal their resilience and bravery in the face of daily carnage. In addition to showing the men at work, Last Men in Aleppo follows a few of them as they go about their daily lives. One, Khaled, is the father of young children. In a heartbreaking scene, he takes his little girl to a pharmacist, who examines her hands and declares she is not getting adequate nutrition.
The documentary also follows Mahmoud, a young man who performs his work as a White Helmet with grave precision. With other White Helmets, Mahmoud and his brother Ahmed race to the scene of a missile attack on a car, now in flames. They begin trying to put out the fire so they can extract the bodies, but another air strike hits, and the men scatter.
In yet another searing moment, Mahmoud is troubled when he visits with young children he has rescued. “Was my head stuck in the rubble when you got me out?” a young boy asks Mahmoud. “I can’t do a visit like this again,” Mahmoud says later. “It’s so difficult.”
As the volunteers monitor the news and perform their arduous work, they contemplate the future. There is talk of escaping to Turkey, to Germany. Midway through the film, a friend asks Mahmoud about his dreams. “I dream that my brother will be safe,” Mahmoud says. “What are your dreams?” The friend replies, “To live a stable and secure life.”
“This film is a story about hope, and it is an attempt to study our humanity and shared responsibility when faced with mindless, irrational killing,” said Fayyad. “I saw this with the White Helmets, whose heroism did not discriminate between civilians and aggressors. Covering their efforts also allows us to show the world the devastating toll of the Syrian civil war. The White Helmets’ rescue efforts cannot be a permanent solution to this crisis. It is our hope that this film motivates people to stop this tragedy altogether, begin peace talks in Syria and help those civilians out of these disaster zones.”
“War brings out the worst in human beings, but it also brings out the best in us. The White Helmets are a living example of that. I hope this film will compel audiences abroad to follow that example.”
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I’m here to share a story made of blood and tears. I am here because I believe in the ability of film to bring justice to Syria.
The peaceful Syrian uprising of 2011 developed into an armed conflict once the ruling regime of Bashar Al-Assad chose to respond with military force. The war in Syria gradually transformed into a dark hole that began destroying the civilian population, and the line between right and wrong became blurred. Officials in all factions were exhibiting Machiavellian behavior, meaning they were compromising principles and ethics in their efforts to achieve their goals. Civilians were glad to put their trust and confidence in the one group that distinguished itself from the rest. I’m talking about those providing civil defense, the group known in the international community as the White Helmets.
In March 2011, I was twice held by members of Assad’s intelligence services after I made a film about freedom of speech. In a secret prison, I saw humanitarian workers held alongside artists and journalists; I witnessed men, women and children being tortured to death.
In 2013, I began to develop the idea for this film as I followed Raed Saleh, who later became the leader of the White Helmets. He was organizing ordinary people into a volunteer brigade that would deal with the massive air strikes that hit their streets and homes; I accompanied them to places just after bombs had fallen. They saved the lives of hundreds of children and families. Soon they were targeted directly by the regime and by Russian drone strikes. Many died, leaving their families with no means of support. Yet the people I was filming only grew more determined to continue their work to save victims. I was astonished by their ability to turn loss into motivation to continue searching for life under the rubble.
This made me think about how to convey the nature of this war, as seen through the eyes of these people. I wanted to explore their inner psychological worlds to understand the struggles that they lived through. A film would offer a chance to demonstrate how repulsive the war in Syria was and to raise questions regarding the value and dignity of human life. It could also shine a light on the role of international law in the prosecution of war criminals and how important it is to hold them accountable for their involvement in fostering extremism, terrorism and mass killings.
This film also speaks to the power of using art and documentary filmmaking to illustrate the absurdity of war. One moment stayed with me: Khaled, our main subject, extends his hand to save a victim trapped under debris. The image looks exactly like Michelangelo’s fresco of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which shows God and Adam reaching their hands toward each other. It is a moment that illustrates the value of the human touch, and a cry for closer examination of the horror of war and any situation that requires us to take control of our lives. The film provides a pathway to discussing these issues, so that we might broach the subjects of isolationism and nationalist, political and religious extremism.
Our heroes save all victims, even those who have caused the deaths of their fellow White Helmets. This film is a tool for achieving forgiveness and overcoming vengeance, and I don’t think it’s too grandiose to say that this film can assist in our search for the meaning of life. It can inspire audiences to look closely at the gift of giving one’s life so that another may live. Hopefully, through the film the White Helmets will earn the recognition they deserve. And, of course, I am hopeful that when people are given a clear-eyed view of the Syrian civil war, they will be motivated to take action to stop this ongoing tragedy by seeking peace in Syria and helping the people who are asking for help.
War brings out the worst in human beings, but it also brings out the best in us. The White Helmets are a living example of that. Last Men in Aleppo is their story.
photo: Steen Johannessen and Feras Fayyad
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Feras Fayyad is an award-winning filmmaker who has worked as a film editor and cinematographer on several documentary and narrative films. He has participated in international film festivals and received recognition for his work with contemporary Syrian issues and political transformation in the Arab world.
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8/9/17 – “An unforgettable and essential documentary about something that demands to be seen, even if it can never hope to be understood.”
David Ehrlich, IndieWire – link