Last Men In Aleppo


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Last Men In Aleppo - after five years of war in Syria, Aleppo’s remaining residents prepare themselves for a siege. Khalid, Subhi and Mahmoud, founding members of humanitarian organisation The White Helmets, have remained in the city to help their fellow citizens — and experience daily life, death, struggle and triumph in a city under fire.
"Quietly builds a testimony to the stoicism all of the 250,000 civilians who, at that time, remained trapped in the city." | Photo: Larm Film

Last Men In Aleppo begins with shots of fish swimming through murky water, it doesn't look healthy and carries a feeling of threat. The fish motif will recur throughout Feras Fayyad and co-director Steen Johannessen's harrowing but essential documentary, serving to add an artistic and memorable dimension to a catalogue of human suffering. The people of Aleppo are, like the fish, caught in a bowl from which it is very difficult to escape and, even if they do, they risk death.

Serious fighting in Aleppo - Syria's second largest city - broke out in 2012, when rebels claimed the east, leaving a government stronghold in the west. The situation gradually worsened until, by mid-2016, Russia had joined Bashar al-Assad's with supporting airstrikes and a siege of the city began. As barrel bombs wreaked carnage, volunteers for the Syrian Civil Defense - better known as the White Helmets - became a vital emergency service, dashing to the scenes of bombings to try to rescue victims from the rubble.

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The film obeys the first good rule of documentary filmmaking - make it personal - retaining a sharp focus on White Helmet volunteers Khaled and Mahmoud. We see their bravery in the face of daily atrocities, pulling children alive and dead from torn buildings, but also their inner war with themselves - over whether they should remain with their families in the city or try to take them somewhere that might be safer.

This documentary - one of three at this year's Sundance to focus Syria along with Cries From Syria and City Of Ghosts and the deserving winner of the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize - is about more than the courage under fire of the White Helmets. It quietly builds a testimony to the stoicism all of the 250,000 civilians who, at that time, remained trapped in the city. We see how, even under the constant threat of shelling, families try to take their children on a day out to a playground - the moment of happiness and release brought to an abrupt end by the prospect of another attack. When Khaled buys fish for a garden fountain it initially seems an odd choice but quickly becomes yet another symbol of the normalcy everyone craves.

Fadi al Halabi, Thaer Mohammed, Mojahed Abo Aljood and the rest of the camera team capture remarkable, intimate footage, whether it is the sight of a child being grabbed, thankfully alive, from the remains of what was his home or a little boy quizzing Mahmoud on how he was rescued. They also capture the brutal beauty of what remains of the city, their cameras drifting through buildings whose walls have been ripped off, leaving the contents of what was once somebody's home spilling out and giving us a sense of the surreal that the remaining residents must feel as they lose everything yet continue on.

In order to understand the current refugee crisis in Syria, we first need to understand what drives people from their homes, and the film shows you just how bad things have to get before people finally feel they have no option but to flee. Last Men In Aleppo urges us to see the reality behind the news numbers, the faces behind the facts and to understand the importance of the White Helmets motto: "To save a life is to save all of humanity".

Reviewed on: 30 Jan 2017
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Documentary tracking the work of the White Helmets in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

Director: Feras Fayyad, Steen Johannessen (co-director)

Year: 2017

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: Denmark

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