In case Gary “What Is Aleppo?” Johnson is still wondering why it is important that (potential) world leaders and the world at large pay attention to what is happening in the city, the documentary Last Men in Aleppo would be a good starting point. Directed by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad and co-directed and co-edited by Danish cutter Steen Johannessen, this harrowingly immediate feature follows two Syrian members of the White Helmets, the organization that goes in after each bombing from the air to try and rescue victims from under the resulting rubble and ruins.
Frequently heartbreaking and hard to watch — “Watch out for torn limbs,” one of the protagonists tells his colleagues matter-of-factly at one point — the film demands to be reckoned with as a testament to the selflessness and courage of these literal life savers, though the constant preference for a purely human approach over even basic contextual information might rub some viewers the wrong way.
The White Helmets have been receiving quite some attention lately, with Orlando von Einsiedel’s short Netflix documentary about them shortlisted for an Oscar and with George Clooney reportedly working on a feature version. This could possibly help turn this impressively shot film into possibly the first Syria-themed documentary since the essential Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait from 2014 to have a shot at theatrical distribution in several territories.
Fayyad’s film was shot between the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2016, while barrel bombs from Russian planes rained on Aleppo, restricting the movement of the volunteers and about 250,000 civilians (left from a population of over 2 million) to an ever-smaller part of the city. Whenever a bomb reduces a building to ruins, the White Helmets try to arrive as quickly as possible to see if there might human victims that need to be rescued. At the start of the film, Fayyad and co-director Johannessen give only the barest of outlines about the conflict and even less information about the White Helmets themselves, omitting, for example, that the organization is financed from abroad and mostly ignoring its political dimensions.
Instead, the documentary focuses on the grueling day-to-day of two White Helmet workers. Khaled and Mahmoud are both around 30 and they tirelessly hurry to wherever a new bomb has hit and destroyed a building, potentially trapping living souls underneath the rubble. With danger for their own lives, they dig and move tons of debris until they can either reach survivors or recuperate the corpses of those that have died. It is, of course, a thankless task in which a moment of ecstasy over finding a living child can tip over into tragedy mere seconds later when their mother or one of their siblings turns out to be dead.
Johannessen and co-editor Michael Bauer carefully modulate the contrasts of the men’s daily highs and lows in the film’s first half, with grave moments alternating with light banter between the men or moments of Khaled with his two young daughters (his wife is conspicuous by her absence). There is a sense that they try to continue life as normal for as much as possible, buying goldfish — earlier spied in the initially rather enigmatic opening sequence — for a fountain or taking advantage of a cease-fire to let the children play outside. The question of whether they should leave is constantly on Khaled’s mind, as ever more buildings are razed to the ground, people die and the unmentioned question arises of what and who is left to stay behind for?
Similarly, Mahmoud struggles with more existential questions as well as those arising directly from his job. After a visit to a family of whom he saved a son, he feels guilty because it felt like he was “showing off”. But it is impossible to reconcile this with an earlier image of the boy, with his hair still missing where he had head wounds, as he sat with Mahmoud’s arm around him, quizzing him about his rescue. Mahmoud’s warm embrace and kind gestures suggest exactly why he digs into each new pile of rubble, hoping to rescue another child like that kid.
Mahmoud also worries about his younger brother Ahmed, who wants to help him, and about his parents, who think the siblings are working in Turkey. In one of the film’s most intense scenes, the brothers are almost hit by a missile and then shot at just after having arrived at a car wrecked by a missile. They were there to get the corpses out of the burning vehicle but for wanting to look after the dead, they almost ended up dead themselves.
Director of photography Fadi al Halabi had a crew of several cameramen who followed Khaled and Mahmoud over the course of a year. Their images are often stunning, not only for what they show but also how they showcase it. Despite the fact they are working in a war zone, there is practically none of the bad-quality shaky-cam footage that we’ve come to expect from those places. Instead, many of the shots have a kind of incongruous and surreal beauty about them, imbuing the film with a certain majesty. And except for a few grainier nighttime and interior sequences, the images are of exceptional clarity.
The editing in the film’s second half is slightly baggier than necessary, while Karsten Fundal’s heavy and heterogeneous score is often less a harmonizing factor than a distraction. The final sequences also feel a little too much like a calculated, fiction-type arrangement of the available footage. Still, there is no denying the cumulative power of the material, in large part due the protagonists’ endless reservoirs of humanity, dignity and selflessness in the face of one of the world’s biggest and most incomprehensible tragedies. Light on background and contextual facts, Last Men in Aleppo speaks very loudly from the heart.
Production companies: Larm Film, Aleppo Media Center, Kloos & Co Medien
Directors: Feras Fayyad, Steen Johannessen
Producers: Soren Steen Jespersen, Kareem Abeed
Director of photography: Fadi al Halabi
Editors: Steen Johannessen, Michael Bauer
Music: Karsten Fundal
No rating, 104 minutes