Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Last Men in Aleppo will have its European premiere at the March opening film of Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX.
It is an intimate encounter with a group of The White Helmets: men who risk their lives trying to rescue victims – dead or alive – of airstrikes and other attacks on Aleppo from rubble and debris. They often seem to be targets of the strikes themselves. We get to know their work as well as their private lives in the period from September 2015 till the autumn of 2016. Since the outbreak of civilian protests, and the subsequent turn to violence by both the Assad regime and foreign parties, we have seen a number of shorter and longer documentaries about the war. These include Morning Fears, Night Chants, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait and Return to Homs, winner of the same Sundance award in 2014. They all confront us with the realities of war, destruction and devastation, and their effects on human beings, most notably ordinary citizens. And they are all filmed from within, which firmly removes them from journalism.
This film follows a group of White Helmets, most notably Khaled, Mahmoud and Nagieb, as they drive around the Aleppo, cope with substandard equipment, or stare at the sky in search of fighter jets. Last Men in Aleppo deepens out the understanding of war by contrasting flashes of ‘action’ for the team with moments of everyday life and contemplation. Should they stay or leave? Send their families away or keep them close? Perpetual destruction is countered with periods of reconstruction, as a temporary cease fire is used to rebuild at a small part of their personal living space. The relief the cease fire provides also allows for anti-Bashar rallies, a visit to the playground and a bit of joking around – although tensions and worries are never far away.
Last Men in Aleppo is the result of a collaboration between Copenhagen-based Larm Film and the Aleppo Media Center, an initiative to cover what happens in Aleppo, with a focus on the daily concerns of its inhabitants. Meetings took place in both Copenhagen and Gaziantep, with Danish editor and co-director Johannessen working with material sent him by director Fayyad. Fayyad in turn worked with several, obviously talented, cameramen to document the events in the city. There are some stunning shots where beauty and ugliness powerfully collide: some kind of shelling in the night sky which looks like fireworks until it sets the city ablaze; a fishtank filled with goldfish abandoned in a bombed-out block of flats. Despite the score is clearly guided towards emotional involvement, it never becomes sentimental or melodramatic.
The White Helmets are also the topic of a short Netflix documentary by the same name, which is nominated for an Oscar for best short documentary. Going by the trailer, they share some of the same footage. The Last Men in Aleppo director, Fayyad aims high, judging by his production statement. In it he expresses the wish that the White Helmets will get the acknowledgement they deserve and the film will motivate people to take action and stop the war. The men repeatedly state how they feel left and abandoned by the whole world – the Arabs as well as the West. The current state of affairs in international politics are, however, less than encouraging. Trump’s most recent whim is to create ‘safe zones’ in Syria paid for by the Gulf States. He is teaming up with Russia, which is bombing Aleppo alongside the Assad regime, while the wealthiest Gulf states are generally unwilling to host Syrian refugees or otherwise to use political pressure to force Assad to step down. In the meantime, Europe is under the spell of nationalist, xenophobic and anti-Islam sentiments. The situation on the Syrian and larger Middle-Eastern ground remains extremely complex, with various parties fighting against and/or alongside each other, including IS, the Free Syrian Army, the Kurds and an infinite number of smaller groups. As the war approaches its seventh year this March, it is unlikely there will be serious efforts towards peace in Syria anytime soon.