Last Men In Aleppo: A Front Row Seat to the Syrian War
WORDS BY: ANYA TCHOUPAKOV
We’ve all seen the headlines, the grainy shaking videos of ashen children and crumbling buildings, and the political discussions and theories of blame. Syria is a hot topic on most news platforms, but the overabundance of information means we may all be too prone to think of the bloodshed in mass terms. People can become no more than numbers, converted into political capital by whoever is choosing to play with the biggest bombs that day.
But art can have the power to remind us of the human toll, the everyday experiences of people on the ground that are as real as you and me—to them, it’s much more than sound bites. Last Men in Aleppo, a film by Syrian director Feras Fayyad in collaboration with the Aleppo Media Center, shows us the conflict through the lives of the White Helmets—a group of civilian first responders who have achieved world-wide fame for their heroic acts following each devastating attack on their city.
The film gives us a front row seat to their lives—their families, their homes, their dreams and fears. Right at the beginning, they show a full-out rescue scene, and this is no frantic cell phone footage. The cinematography is incongruously beautiful, sharp and colorful even while what it depicts is practically destroyed. In the rubble, the men shout orders to each other and make lightning-fast decisions about how to clear the debris from the latest bomb and save the children trapped beneath it. The scene is chaotic and urgent. It’s hard to believe this is a documentary; the destruction looks apocalyptic. Afterwards, there’s a drawn out quiet moment where the rescuers sit silently together, reflecting and smoking. They discuss what just happened, what they could have done differently. They speak about who’s alive or dead mathematically, but with tears in their eyes.
This rhythm of death and life rolls through the entire film. During a ceasefire, they take groups of children in an ambulance to a playground where even the adults take a turn on the slide, but the bustling and sunny scene gets cut short as warplanes appear overhead and radios start to crackle. They disperse and war begins again. Afterwards, the White Helmets convene at their headquarters, cooking by the light of their flashlights, cheering each other up. In these rare moments of leisure, they alternate between three subjects: where is the world’s mercy? What new thing has happened? Should we leave?
It is the final question they grapple with the most. They hold a strong sense of duty to their city and can’t imagine leaving. It’s their home, how could they leave it to someone else? They are fatalistic, saying their destiny is to die in Aleppo. They’re determined to “prevail or die.” Still, the main dilemma is the children. The urge to keep them safe fights with the urge to keep them close. One man admits he’d rather they died before his eyes than far away where he doesn’t know what happened to them. “I’d cry blood,” he says.
Through all the horrors that take up their lives, their camaraderie is uplifting. Though each looks like the toughest action figure around, they are far from macho. Incredibly vulnerable with each other, tender with their children, and thoughtful in their decisions, they find joy in singing and dancing together, sipping coffee while they wait for the next rescue call. “May we never be separated, except by death,” they say.
Overall, the White Helmets can be characterized by their intense devotion, almost obsession with life. Though their work is death, they worship life in all its forms. They spend their free time building a fountain out of rubble for some fish they get at the market. They plant trees, hoping the fruit they bear will feed the next generation if not this one. During a visit to a family they had rescued from being crushed by the rubble, they learn about the siblings that didn’t survive. A boy they saved climbs onto the lap of the man who physically pulled him out, and asks why he saved him. “You are a flower,” says the White Helmet, “and you must see life.”