“If I leave, it will be to the cemetery”
It’s a shame that those who need to watch Last Men in Aleppo are those who won’t. I’m talking the brainwashed masses quick to call a liberal media “fake news” while they help facilitate legitimate fake news fabricated by enemy regimes hoping to plant dissent. They include watchers of Fox News and listeners of Alex Jones amongst others—an American conservative media outlet and a shock jock peddling fear and bile to an easily manipulated audience. These “news” sources latch onto stories originated by Russians and Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad stating how the Syria Civil Defense (White Helmets) consists of actors rather than heroes. And unfortunately their sycophants are so warped with hate that they’d rather believe it than the reality that not all Arabs are evil.
This is why Firas Fayyad‘s documentary (co-directed by Steen Johannessen) is such an important film. They embed themselves with the White Helmets—specifically a unit led by Khaled Omar Harah and his friends Nagieb and Mahmoud—and travel to bombsites to capture what’s happening in Aleppo’s devastating warzone. We see the Russian jets in the air, watch the missiles fall to the ground, and feel the rumble of impact as plumes of smoke rise into the sky. From there these volunteers mobilize, climbing into their vehicles and driving towards the carnage with whatever tools are at their disposal to dig through the rubble and find survivors. For every child still breathing there’s sadly about five or six casualties of an amoral fight for power.
And while the film isn’t all harrowing search and rescues, it is forever harrowing. Whether we watch civilians engaged in a massive protest parade singing rebellious chants or visiting one of the few playgrounds that are still intact during a supposed ceasefire (between Assad’s Russian-bolstered military and rebels on the ground), relaxing remains akin to suicide. Those jets are looking to destroy. They’re targeting large groups to reduce numbers and chip away at their enemy’s resolve through genocide. So any break from watching those skies becomes an opportunity to be killed. Every single man, woman, and child is marked for death—it doesn’t matter if they’re playing miles away from an explosion or running towards one to help. Fate proves to be neither discerning nor forgiving.
How Fayyad and company stand apart from generic subjective journalism is their ability to erase themselves from the proceedings. There are no interviews or narrative commentary because the events truly speak for themselves. Watching these men digging through concrete to remove bodies is enough. Hearing candid conversations about whether or not they should leave Aleppo is enough. We see citizens fix their broken down truck for free, brothers lying to their sick parents about what they do for work because they believe in the mission, and children too young to fully comprehend what’s happening explain how Syria is their home. Through all the tragedy, these people stay because they are taking a stand. They’re saving people while their government kills. They’re martyrs that will no longer be slandered.
The honesty and authenticity of this cannot be dismissed. The juxtapositions of nightmarish scenes and celebration are necessary to prove life hasn’t stopped in this region. It’s not a wild, violent wasteland like al-Assad wants the world to believe either. People are still getting married and kids are still smiling. Fish are swimming in tanks and soccer is played as long as there’s room to kick a ball. And you can’t help but choke up watching it all against a backdrop of failing infrastructure—blown-up buildings barely holding together with bent rebar. Cynics would declare Aleppo lost. They’d surrender and leave. But who will stop the chaos from following after them upon that retreat? Bashar al-Assad isn’t destroying a city. He’s silencing people opposed to his tyranny.
This objective scope means that Last Men in Aleppo is completely uncensored. You will see the dead carried away and the explosions yet to be contained. The futility and desperation on every face cannot be hidden from view, only forgotten for seconds at a time. Tears are shed upon learning that someone taken from the rubble has died and perhaps even more fall when someone lives. To hear Khaled, Mahmoud, and the others speak is to only begin trying to understand their situation. There are no good choices—just righteous ones. To stay and fight for others is to risk your family’s wellbeing. But to leave and save them is to abandon a home that doesn’t deserve what’s happening. And for many, both roads lead to death.
So experience the pain and suffering. Experience a missile landing feet away from where you stand. This is what it looks like to live in a place without freedom or choice. This is what Arabs look like when not blindly lumped in with ISIS terrorists. They live, breathe, and bleed like you. The difference is that you live in a country willing to sacrifice them because of what you’ve been told rather than what is true. You can close your door because you cannot tell the difference between a hero and a villain when all you see is color and hear is Arabic. Fayyad has captured humanity pushed against a wall, trying to move forward rather than through. The White Helmets won’t turn away while innocents are slaughtered.
[1-3] Feras Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.