The Syrian War has brought out several documentaries on the subject, particularly from the Nordic region. This number of documentaries that display the monstrosities of the war can become overwhelming to audiences, but nonetheless, they are necessary to screen. A standout candidate has emerged in Feras Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo, a portrait of the Syrian Civil Defence’s ‘White Helmet’ volunteers at the frontline of the conflict. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the documentary creates a vivid and empathetic sense of how it feels to live and die through the carnage in Aleppo.
The White Helmets have been receiving attention lately, with Orlando von Einsiedel’s short Netflix documentary about them and with George Clooney reportedly working on a feature version. This documentary, however, was shot back in 2015 and 2016, as Russian planes bombed Aleppo, restricting the movement of the volunteers and 250,000 civilians (left from a population of 2 million). Last Men in Aleppo predominately follows the work of the White Helmets, following them as they dig and move tonnes of debris from bombed buildings in hopes to find survivors.
Last Men in Aleppo balances the work of the White Helmets with their personal lives. There is Khaled Harah, one of the top members, who is attempting to keep his fellow volunteers motivated as they negotiate human damage and debris that accumulates faster than they can sift through it. He is caught between his loyal service to his home city and the safeguarding of his wife and two daughters, considering making the dangerous journey to Turkey. ‘Something inside me tells me to leave’ he says to the camera, but he remains as he knows no one will replace his position within the White Helmets. He tries to keep his life as normal as possible, buying goldfish, letting the children play outside during cease-fire, and remaining a rather cheery outlook. The second character of the documentary is Mahmoud, who has put his philosophy studies on hold to join the White Helmets, grappling with ethics and accountability while out in the field, and struggling with the perception of heroism while other distraught citizens have their soul ripped out of them.
Last Men in Aleppo is undoubtedly difficult to watch. In one crushing scene, the extraction of a baby’s corpse in the wreckage and the discovery of its living mother occur only seconds apart. There’s no triumph in this job, just tragedy. While the documentary treads the line with the news footage we have seen all too often, it is crafted together to create a moving, meaningful, and important documentary.
A documentary like this is hard to create; the footage was clearly hard to obtain and the filmmakers put themselves at risk in making it. Shot between September 2015 and autumn 2016, the footage is predominately first-hand. Even when in the middle of the crossfire, the director of photography Fadi al Halabi and his crew of cameramen shoot with constant poise and precision, keeping an eye out for human activity at the very edges of a scene. The ending is absolutely heartbreaking, and only pushes further the importance of Last Men in Aleppo.