Last Men in Aleppo is a heartbreaking chronicle of a city under siege. The Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner followed the Syrian Civil Defence , aka The White Helmets, as they responded to victims of merciless dictator Bashar Al Assad. It is a gruesome account of families blown to pieces by indiscriminate bombing, mangled corpses, and bloody survivors pulled clinging to life under rubble. The footage will shake you to the core. But beyond the horrifying imagery, it is also an emotional account of humanity. Documenting the brave men and their families, who selflessly help each other while constantly facing death.
Firas Fayyad, Syrian journalist and the film’s director, led a team that recorded the lives of the White Helmets in Aleppo. He primarily focuses on Khaled, a married father of three, and Mahmoud, who works alongside his younger brother. As White Helmets, they lead teams that respond to the bombing and artillery attacks of the Assad regime. The men drive ambulances and trucks through the destroyed city. Swerving past fleeing civilians as they plunge into chaos and death.
The White Helmets work feverishly to rescue anyone trapped under the buildings. All the while monitoring the skies for regime and Russian aircraft, which target crowds and large gatherings. These scenes are exceptionally graphic and brutal. Be forewarned, Last Men in Aleppo shows the search and rescues unfiltered. Fayyad wants the world to see the horror of finding a baby’s crushed body. This is the unimaginable terror these people face daily.
The personal lives of Khaled and Mahmoud are observed in depth. These two men, completely different in personality and stages of life, are united in saving their city. This is their constant refrain, what keeps them from fleeing. Khaled fears for the safety of his family. Should he attempt the dangerous trip to Turkey, live in a refugee camp? Or stay in the only home he has ever known. Mahmoud worries about his brother, always begging him to leave. These conversations are gripping to behold, literal life and death decisions.
Fayyad’s team does an exceptional job filming Aleppo itself. It is surreal to think 200,000 people remain in the city. Unfathomable that human beings in the 21st century are living under such terrible conditions. Aleppo is a devastated war zone in every sense. The White Helmets drive through barren, demolished neighborhoods. At night, the pitch black sky explodes as aircraft drop barrel bombs randomly. Khaled, Mahmoud, and their teams, always on the alert.
Last Men in Aleppo holds Bashar Al Assad and his Russian allies responsible for the carnage. The citizens of Aleppo, in rare moments of public demonstration, curse their savage oppressors. The truth of the Syrian Civil War is that Assad will most likely prevail; that the world does not care, and has stood idly by as they are decimated. This awful outcome is not lost on the people. The film depicts the mental toll that constant war has taken. The normality of the siege has left them resigned and stoic, but by no means defeated.
I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A with Firas Fayyad. As a journalist, he was jailed twice by the Assad regime. Both times he was beaten and tortured, they tore off his fingernails. Fayyad wants the film to be used as evidence of war crimes. He demands justice for the innocents killed and lives destroyed. He does not know how this will happen, but wants the world accountable.
Last Men in Aleppo exemplifies the power of cinema. Whatever your feelings about the war in Syria, the film delivers the stark reality of life in Aleppo. These people are being wiped out. They are trapped in a devastated city. Their blood, sacrifice, and love for each other has been laid bare all to see. This is such a difficult film to watch, but necessary. We cannot hide or be ignorant of the killing in Syria. From Grasshopper Films, Last Men in Aleppo is a clear early Oscar contender for Best Documentary.