Aleppo’s Fall documents the conflict in Syria from the ground, and gets dangerously close to the dramatic events as the country’s capitol is about to fall.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: March 5, 2018

Aleppo’s Fall

Nizam Najar

Henrik Underbjerg

Norway/Denmark/France, 2017

”I want to see the rebellion from the inside”, director Nizam Najar says in his voice-over narration in Aleppo’s Fall, which premiered at IDFA in November. The Oslo based filmmaker grew up in Syria, Libya and Sudan, and was born in Aleppo, where he lived between the ages of ten and sixteen.

In his documentary, Najar travels back to the now heavily war-torn city, ten years after his last visit. Together with a local cameraman he decides to seek out one of the city’s front lines to find out why the rebels haven’t been able to conquer president Bashar al-Assad three years after the riots started.

Differences in opinions

The film follows one of the city’s allegedly sixteen different militias within the Free Syrian Army between 2014 and 2016 until the city eventually falls to the supremacy of the Russian-supported government forces. This particular rebel group is led by Haj Khaled–a father figure to many of the militia’s young men, according to the filmmaker. Nevertheless, Khaled is challenged by the younger and more charismatic second-in-command Omar, who’s in charge of the group’s military operations and often takes the opposite point of view to his leader. For instance on whether or not to respect a ceasefire that is being declared–Omar believes it is an opportunity to try to gather the various groups into a common front, while Khaled seems to fear that a single entity will be more predictable and easier to manipulate for the enemy.

Internally divided

Aleppo’s fall is not the kind of film that looks at the conflict in Syria in a broad perspective. Instead, its focus is on the local group to whom Najar and his cinematographer have gotten impressively close. While we more often hear about the many who have fled Syria, the filmmaker has stated that this film is about those who stayed and refused to give up. But, as the title more than implies, the film does not leave much hope that their fight will be a victory anytime soon.

«The leader, Khaled, seems to fear that a single entity will be more predictable and easier to manipulate for the enemy.»

The documentary paints a picture of an internally divided militia group. Furthermore, a central argument of the film seems to be that the inability to stand together contributed to the rebels’ defeat and Aleppo’s fall (although Najar also reminds us that Assad was helped by Russian bombers, whereas the rebels didn’t have any similar support from the outside). Here, the film points beyond the specific militia group and possibly at a general feature of the Arab spring.

Aleppo’s Fall Director: Nizam Najar

Ordinary people

Recently we have seen a lot of documentaries about the Syrian war in the same way that we have seen a wave of films about refugees from both this and other conflict areas. Aleppo’s Fall follows the rebel’s battle in Aleppo at very close range, at a time when there were hardly any international journalists present in the country. The filmmaker has clearly gained a unique access to this Syrian militia, which he also films in direct confrontations, thereby exposing himself to significant danger. In one of the film’s strongest scenes Najar is even present with the camera as one of the key characters is shot and killed by a sniper.

Aleppo’s Fall Director: Nizam Najar

The characters in the film appear to be ordinary people forced to become soldiers. For instance, the leader himself, Haj Khaled, is originally a tailor. The canons used to fire against the government forces are partly homemade. Throughout the film, extensive bombings occur regularly in this eastern part of the city, which is already largely in ruins.

Many of the rebels argue that religion should not be too dominant in the society they want to create. However, as with the choice of military strategies, this question seems to be the subject of some controversy within the group, which again reflects the lack of a unifying vision. Nonetheless, it is understandable that they want to distance themselves from ISIS (whose fighters also fight against the Syrian regime) and their claim to religion. (In some ways, ISIS can be seen as an example of a group with just the unifying vision these rebels lack–although clearly not a “good” example.)

Attempts to live a normal life

The film also depicts the soldiers’ attempts to live a more normal life as the ceasefire enters into force, but the filmmaker is not as close to his characters in these more everyday situations. Given that he has chosen to include his own narration on the soundtrack, Najar could at certain points have used this more actively to contextualize some of the scenes. This might have made the story progression easier to follow as the film is stronger in its dramatic single sequences than as a dramaturgical whole.

«Many of the rebels argue that religion should not be too dominant in the society they want to create.»

Having said that, it is praiseworthy that the film avoids simplified explanations of what appears to be an extremely chaotic situation, and that Nizam Najar never attempts to take on an omniscient, conclusive perspective. Instead, he lets us get acquainted with one particular part of this intricate conflict quite consistently depicted from the ground. And even though the filmmaker got out before Aleppo actually fell under bombing, he is at times dangerously close to the dramatic events he documents.

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