In early 2012 a series of bombings triggered the brutal Syrian Civil War. Some of the fiercest fighting and severest human rights violations took place in Aleppo. Over the next several years the city was decimated, its civilian death toll skyrocketed, and over 500,000 refugees fled the violence. It was once Syria’s largest city, but the war has had a dramatic effect on its standing.
Several documentaries have offered sobering insight to the Syrian Civil War. The latest (and arguably best) is Firas Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo”, recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film’s follows a handful of men, particularly Khalid, Mahmoud, and Subhi. The three men are leaders of the White Helmets, a group of volunteers who serve as first responders to bombings and civilian evacuations across the city.
Fayyad’s film splits its focus between the bravery these men exhibit daily and their inner conflict between staying in Aleppo or getting out with their families. It’s a struggle that we see in some of the film’s quieter moments where Fayyad stills his camera and simply observes the heartfelt conversations these men share. Can they supply a life of normalcy for their family in Aleppo? Can they keep their family safe?
One scene potently captures these questions. Khalid takes his family to a playground where a large group has gathered for an afternoon of fun. It’s a tender reprieve from the bombings and one of the few bright moments we get. But the distant scream of a Russian jet and a radio warning of a potential attack cuts the day short. Khalid scrambles to get his family in their van and away since we learn that bigger groups of people (even civilians) are often targeted. It’s a sobering sequence.
Then you have the intense scenes showing Khalid, Mahmoud and Subhi rushing into the chaos of fresh bombings. They lead their teams in search and rescue attempts, sifting through rubble and ash looking to save anyone they can. Fayyad’s images are raw and unflinching, highlighting the unvarnished ugliness of the attacks and the horrible civilian cost. Some of their efforts end in relief, other times horror.
The film ends with a startling reminder of the perpetual danger the city’s citizens live in and the immense sacrifice of the White Helmet volunteers. Obviously subject matter like this is hard viewing and Fayyad doesn’t cut any corners. Some sequences will leave you speechless and the final moments with undoubtedly stick with you. There aforementioned rawness of “Last Men in Aleppo” leaves the film a little rough around the edges, but it also keeps it grounded in reality and delivers a truly eye-opening experience.
VERDICT – 4 STARS