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Feras Fayyad’s Documentary, Last Men in Aleppo: A Shoah for Our Time

Aleppo, Syria was once one of the world’s great cities. Home to an astonishingly diverse number of communities comprising cultures from across the Middle East and beyond, its population peaked at close to five million before dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement  After years of bombing by Syrian helicopters and the Russian air force, this formerly thriving center of arts and culture, its centuries-old historic sites and housing stock have been reduced to rubble; only about two to three hundred inhabitants remain. Everyone else living there at the start of the previous decade has either become a refugee or been killed.

That’s the backdrop of Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad’s shattering, heartbreaking, Sundance Award-winning documentary Last Men in Aleppo, which continues to show in theatres and is available on the various VOD platforms. Starting in 2015, Fayyad began filming groups of White Helmets, the volunteer emergency responders rushing to civilian sites hit by bombs and missiles. His work was interrupted when he was imprisoned and tortured for almost a year by Assad’s secret police. Eventually, he was forced to flee the country: some of the film’s footage ended up being taken by the White Helmets themselves.

The result is a landmark work of mise-en-scene filmmaking, literally capturing the frantic rescue efforts through the first responders’ eyes. The viewer feels every bump of the ambulance on the potholed streets, the terror of the survivors hoping that their loved ones are still alive somewhere in the rubble, the soul-crushing shellshock of the ambulance crew after those with a chance of survival have been pulled from beneath the rubble and concrete and the dead have been counted.

Fayyad made the film to document Assad’s crimes against humanity, but at a press screening late last week affirmed that every wars is like this. This film is not for the squeamish: you will see a lot of dead infants, grieving parents and emergency workers grimly speculating on which body parts might be a match.

Yet amidst this relentless horror, there is extraordinary compassion and hope. In an audience !Q&A, Fayyad explained that he was stunned to see a “human experiment” in progress. Where conventional wisdom predicts savagery and a battle over dwindling resources, he found solidarity and love that defied all odds.

Most of the film centers around the White Helmets’ round-the-clock rescue runs, but the off-duty footage is just as revealing. Three main protagonists emerge. Khaled, the big, irrepressible family man whose kids’ health is failing due to malnutrition, is the most charismatic and expressive, whether making up his own blackly humorous lyrics to folk songs, or quixotically building a fishpond: if he survives, he asserts, he’s going to breed goldfish.

Mahmoud, in his early twenties, worries constantly about his younger brother in the crew and wishes in vain for an upgrade from the battered ambulance he drives. Subhi is the least talkative but most visually expressive member and seems to be the most shellshocked. We eventually find out that he has good reason to look that way.

We all know how this story ends. Everybody leaves, whether by smuggler’s route out of what’s left of the city, or by bomb attack: there’s more than one hastily organized funeral in this film. Meanwhile, the neighborhood kids are stoked to the max to finally be able to venture outside for a trip their ghetto playground, there’s produce at a small farmer’s market, and there’s even a wedding. Meanwhile, pharmacies are running out of medicine and a steady stream of Aleppians head for the Turkish border. As predictably as this film ends, it is no less shocking and heartwrenching, amplified by the White Helmets’ heroism. In total, Khaled ends up saving over two hundred lives, and the others are probably right behind. If there’s any film this year that deserves a Nobel Prize, this is is.

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November 6, 2017 Posted by | Film, Politics, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment