Last Men In Aleppo follows Syria’s White Helmets - an incredible group of civilians who, having formed search and rescue teams, run towards danger in the desperate hope of saving lives.
Feras Fayyad’s documentary focuses on three White Helmets in particular - Khaled, Subhi, and Mahmoud - as they try to make a life amid the chaos. We watch as they struggle to decide whether to flee the horror or stay to fight for their country.
Before long, we are hopelessly invested in their lives… hoping that they will be spared as they seek to save others.
Fayyad’s film recalls fictionalised depictions of war in cinema. However, we are never in any doubt of the reality and the horror that the White Helmets are facing. It is often unbearably tough to watch. Fayyad is determined to make his audience aware of the gravity of the situation.
We understand that the remaining residents in Aleppo are trapped - living in a nightmare. Supplies are running low and everyone is on edge - scanning the skies for the next bomb.
They do not have to wait long. When the bombs arrive they kill indiscriminately. The White Helmets rescue many people but we also see haunting and utterly devastating footage of dead bodies (including babies and small children) being pulled from the rubble.
However, Last Men In Aleppo is never exploitative. Fayyad shows us just enough horror to help us see what these people went through - and to enable us to understand why they would want to flee.
“I think this film is made out of the captured moments that documentary filmmaking produces - the reality and that which gives an artistic form to the absurdity of war," Fayyad explains.
Fayyad first encountered the White Helmets in 2013. “I saw them running in the direction of a barrel bomb that had just been dropped,” the director recalls. “The whole group was running for the sake of saving the largest amount of civilians possible.”
Soon afterwards, a barrel bomb fell on the city, killing many White Helmets. “This was one of the most important moments that came to determine the fate of the different personalities in the film, as they became more determined to continue their work to save the victims,” the director adds. “I was attracted by their ability to turn the loss into motivation for continuing to search for life under the rubble.”
Fayyad became determined to raise awareness about the White Helmets. “I also had a desire to explore their inner psychological and mental world in order to understand the struggles that they lived through in those moments of their lives.”
Meanwhile, Fayyad wanted Last Men In Aleppo to convey the “repulsiveness of the war in Syria and to raise questions regarding rising extremism, revenge and the value and dignity of the human being”.
Khaled, Subhi, and Mahmoud took part in Fayyad’s documentary not to highlight their heroism but to show the world the horror of what they have experienced (and that many are still experiencing). However, their selfless actions are undeniably inspiring.
It is hard not to feel despair after watching Last Men In Aleppo. However, this is not the emotion that Fayyad wants us to feel. “This film is a story about hope, and it is an attempt to study our human roots, our affiliations and our collective tasks in situations that require us to take control of our lives when faced with a mindless, irrational killer,” he says.
“It is a tool for understanding forgiveness and overcoming vengeance. I can see this when our heroes save all the victims, even those who caused their deaths. It is also a tool in the search for the meaning of life, as it inspires you to look closely at your own gift of life so that
another can live… War brings out the worst in human beings, but it also brings out the best in us. The White Helmets are indeed a living example of that."
War Documentary Recommendations
Last Men In Aleppo is part of the war sub-genre of Documentary 7. If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
My honourable mentions include The Unknown Known, Dirty Wars, 5 Broken Cameras and Hell and Back Again.
Do you have any war documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do share them in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.