Last Men in Aleppo: Feel how we failed in Syria
by Vladan Petkovic
- The winning film from Sundance and CPH:DOX is a gruelling documentary about the struggles of White Helmets in Aleppo
Last Men in Aleppo [+see also:
film profile] by Syrian director Feras Fayyad and Danish co-director and editor Steen Johannessen world-premiered at Sundance, where it scooped the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary Competition, and last week it won the top award at Copenhagen's CPH:DOX (see the news).
The film follows members of the White Helmets, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, volunteers who operate in parts of rebel-controlled territories, saving people from destroyed buildings, helping the Red Crescent and risking their lives on a daily basis. It begins with one of the many heart-breaking scenes, where thirty-something Khaled, a father of two daughters, pulls three small children out of the rubble. And only one of them is alive.
Next, we see Khaled riding in a car with Mahmoud, who says his only goal is to prevent his younger brother, also a volunteer, from getting killed. The pair is heading to another emergency: a missile has just hit a car on the road outside the city. And as they help the firemen to put out the fire, they are attacked by an unseen enemy. They are showered with bullets, and the cameraman also falls to the ground, so we see the whole thing on shaky camera footage.
There are many terrifying images, as the White Helmets sift through the rubble of a building hit by a missile, pulling out the dead adults and children whose injuries are plain to see, often in the hands of a devastated parent. They find detached limbs – legs, hands, feet – and try to find out who a particular part of body belongs to. But what makes the film so gruelling and difficult to watch is that this is happening every day, again and again – it’s a constant struggle undertaken by people under direct fire from Bashar's and Russian forces, and the filmmakers put us in the midst of this loop.
There are lighter moments, but they never last long. When a ceasefire is announced, Khaled takes his daughters to a playground. The sun is shining, families have gathered to enjoy a rare moment of calm, parents join their children on the swings… But soon a Russian jet flies overhead and they have to run for cover. No ceasefire in Syria can be trusted.
Our protagonists are very human, flesh-and-blood characters, and what makes the film even more demanding is that we like them, we become attached to them. We recognise ourselves in them, and we are spending time in their hell. It is not pleasant, and of course it should not be. After 100 minutes of this film, the viewer is dazed, in shock, but the feeling does not end there. Seeing Last Men in Aleppo is a haunting experience that will not allow us to forget how catastrophically the human race has failed in Syria. We should always be reminded of that – every person in the Western world, but also in the non-afflicted countries of the Middle East, should feel at least some degree of guilt about the horror in Syria. And this film succeeds in taking us there.