The Last Men in Aleppo, directed by Feras Fayyad

This film is about the Syrian Civil Defense’s “White Helmet” volunteers at the frontline of the conflict in the capital city. Watching the film was the experience of viewing the obliteration of a city and its civilians at ground zero. The film opens with Khaled, a White Helmet, scanning the sky for Russian and Syrian jets and helicopters as they strafe the city. For the next 104 minutes we are dragged through a labyrinth of urban apartment buildings while Khaled and his crew alternately take cover or rush into the bomb sites to save people and recover the dead. And the bombs keep coming, and coming, and coming. And Khaled and his team keep running into the smoke to excavate, jackhammer, shovel and eventually dig by hand through the rubble in search of humans. The first time we see this process, a small child is extracted from a tiny crevice at the bottom of an impossible mountain of concrete. The camera is close enough for us to feel every abrasion, taste the chalky grit and sense the impact-induced sleepiness of the little body. I had a terrible thought: people aren’t being killed by bombs, they are being killed by buildings. They are being buried and crushed under monumental summits of cinder block, concrete, electrical wiring, rebar, tile and the choking dust produced by the pulverization of those materials. The violence in Aleppo is incessant and it feels impossible to deal with, but it is a very real thing that is happening right now. Against all odds, amidst the blinding terror, Khaled and the other people depicted in the film demonstrate and communicate unwavering love and gentleness towards each other and towards their families. There are moments of searing poignancy. Khaled is enchanted with his children. He hugs them, kisses them and showers them with love, all the while contemplating whether it is more dangerous to stay in Aleppo or flee the city. This film is brutal. Many of its images are etched in my mind, no matter how hard I try to shake them. The film is also a massively important achievement. Before risking his life to make this film, the director Feras Fayyad was imprisoned and tortured by the Syrian government for documenting the civil uprising in Syria. After his release he continued to receive death threats and was eventually forced to flee the country. The triumph of this film is not only one of human rights advocacy but also one of arts advocacy.


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