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Within the crowded field of documentaries vying for awards this season is a sub-skirmish of titles dealing with the war in Syria. But the only one made by a Syrian is Firas Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo, a Sundance 2017 Grand Jury Prize winner focusing on the fearless White Helmets, volunteers from all walks of life who, when the barrel bombs begin to drop, run toward the blast to rescue whatever survivors they can from the rubble.
It’s not the first movie Fayyad has made shedding light on oppression in his country. His documentary On the Other Side, about an exiled Syrian poet living in the Czech Republic, resulted in Fayyad’s arrest and torture for nine months between 2011 and 2012.
“They put me in isolation,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter about his confinement. “They beat me every day, put me standing on my feet, held my hands up with ropes for hours, six or seven hours without any kind of food or water or nothing. They don’t give you food, it’s just enough to survive. I wished to be killed because it was very difficult and hard for me. That’s what they want. They want you to wish to be killed, and they want to show you that you will not get even your wish to die. To survive this every day is a nightmare. We open our eyes [in the morning] and we know another hard day will start with the torture and psychological pressure.”
Upon his release, Fayyad fled Syria with roughly 200 refugees through the deserts of Jordan to Turkey. Today, he lives with his wife and daughter in Denmark, where he continues to make movies exposing the horrors of his homeland. Here, he talks about the West’s nonresponse to the slaughter in Syria, Putin’s effort to divide Europe and the upcoming Sochi talks on ending the Syrian war.
You had already riled leadership in Damascus. What made you want to make this movie and further endanger yourself?
This documentary was about my country, my people, my nightmare. The feeling that I left behind a lot of people that didn’t survive the scene, I’m all the time guilty with that. So that’s a big motivation. This is a film motivated by [the notion that] I have survived through this movie and I’d like to share the things that I’ve witnessed.
Were you surprised by a lack of reaction to Assad’s attacks on his own people?
Everyone saw this footage through different journalists that documented the moment the barrel bombs fell down over Syria, and there’s no action about this. There’s not any movement to draw a real line in front of that. So the people think there is no decision from the U.S. because they’ve seen the chemical attacks and Obama coming with a very straight speech and saying we have to make a line, and then nothing happened.
Why do think that was?
The impact of the Iraq war on the American citizens was very powerful and strong. But it wasn’t the American voice, not in Obama’s time and not in Trump’s time, that helped the Syrian people. And a big opportunity was a decision that should have been taken when Assad used the chemical attack in Ghouta that killed more than 300 civilians, most of them children. The chance was gone with a wipe.
Why do you think Russia chose this war to get involved in?
They wanted to push Europe and push the U.S. And they wanted to divide Europe through one of the biggest refugee crises. They forced the European Union to have to make moral decisions. And many of them helped the Russians, creating an ugly game between the parties and nationalism or the other things.
What do you expect from the Russia talks on Syria in Sochi later this month?
Sochi will be advertising for Russia but it won’t happen in that way. Sochi is pushing out all people who reject the decisions of Russia and [recognize] the link between Russia and Trump. Sochi is a big advertising to make people think this is the end of the war.
The White Helmets are a target of RT and Russian trolls. Why is that?
Because through the work of the White Helmets they’ve collected evidence of war crimes, a piece of a rocket they find after an attack, and these pieces are filed with NGOs looking into war crimes or people in the justice process. And all this is evidence to be used after the war.
How detrimental is the war on facts and fake news to documentary filmmakers?
At LAX a border guard interrogated me and looked through all my stuff. And he asked me, “You are the White Helmets guy?” He said, “This is fake news. I didn’t believe these things.” I asked him if he read a lot of Russian propaganda. It shocked me. I’m looking into his eyes and couldn’t believe it. It’s coming through U.S. people and even people who work for the government.
Apparently George Clooney is developing a movie about the war in Syria. Are you confident that Hollywood can get it right?
The Hollywood style, it’s really important because it’s the international language. It’s the impact that’s very powerful and we need the voices of the people to watch these, not just movies for limited audiences. So this is a chance to bring this story to a bigger and wider audience.
And what are your hopes for Last Men in Aleppo?
I try to show how the White Helmets helped people to be hopeful, and it helps young people to join the White Helmets and feel like they are survivors and are helping to make change in their country. They’re working hours and hours to save a baby and they can see how meaningful life is. The number of people who they saved, these people will build Syria in the future. These people build Syria through saving more than 100,000 lives. Just imagine this number being killed. When you talk about real heroes, it’s people that make change, the people we don’t see every day on the front page or listen to their stories. This is a real hero, not like Superman in a Hollywood film.