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'Last Men In Aleppo': Sundance Review

Dir. Feras Fayyad. Syria/Netherlands, 2017, 102 mins

It was once thought that powerful television footage from Vietnam would forever change how war was conducted. Yet wave after multi-media wave of distressing images, TV footage and powerful documentaries have emerged from Syria in recent years and nothing has altered the course of this shameful proxy war. Small surprise that Syria’s anti-Assad search-and-rescue organisation The White Helmets, whose heroism is catalogued in the high-quality, staunchly verite documentary The Last Men In Aleppo, have come to the belief that the world has set its face against them.

Editing is clearly complex given the variable footage, but each emergency call and every character is successfully individualised and identifiable, and several arcs snap into the overall narrative drive.

Last Men In Aleppo catalogues human tragedy wrapped in a humanitarian disaster. In a final twist which seems unlikely, but is still worth hoping for, viewers would embrace this tough but necessary film, helping it turn the tide of public opinion. The 40-minute Netflix doc White Helmets, about the same organisation, has already been championed by George and Amal Clooney, and the actor has expressed a desire to make a feature film on the subject.

A prize at Sundance would help Last Men’s fortunes considerably and encourage festival play for a dedicated distributor: this film’s brutal tone doesn’t have the glossy arc of a typical cable pick-up, but public broadcasters can hopefully be relied upon to spread the word. Another title at Sundance, Cries from Syria, has already been boarded by HBO. People risked their lives to shoot this footage; the fact that it’s a tough watch seems like a poor excuse not to.

Last Men In Aleppo is not the lyrical tribute of 2014’s Silvered Waters, but a hard look at the men who shoulder the load in the rubble of Aleppo as the siege intensifies. It’s a world in which the sky lights up at night and hell is unleashed on the city’s inhabitants, where the Helmets try to identify the dead through fragments of limbs – who owns the severed arm in a collapsed apartment block? Was the owner of the missing leg wearing slippers? Children may be alive when they are pulled out from under collapsed masonry, but they may equally be dead: the Helmets are red-eyed, destroyed, staunch, endlessly roaming the streets. It’s hard to look at the lifeless young bodies here, but equally difficult to look at the hopeless eyes of their rescuers.

There are moments when these battle-hardened men engage with normal life, such as buying goldfish and attempting to set up a home-made aquarium in their rough, temporary lodging (which gives the film its title sequece), or visiting a childrens’ playground in an afternoon full of laughter, and they make the savagery more feel more intense when it eventually lands again. Editing is clearly complex given the variable footage, but each emergency call and every character is successfully individualised and identifiable, and several arcs snap into the overall narrative drive.

Few casual passers-by will attempt a documentary like this, so potential audiences will mostly know from the very early frames that its main protagonist, Khaled Omar Harrah, became famous for pulling a child alive from the rubble of Aleppo in an incident that was seen as a symbol of hope for humanity.They will also be aware that he was killed last year as Aleppo began its final implosion, so the film immediately takes a pre-determined arc. Director Feras Fayyad, working with his Danish co-director Steen Johannessen, does not let that inevitability dominate, however: we see the city through Khaled’s exhausted eyes, while realising the story is so much bigger than one man. 

It’s hard to assess whether news will again overtake Last Men In Aleppo, or whether it will rest as the final commentary on the pounded city, but whatever the outcome, the work of Fayyad and his dedicated team stands as a testament to what Syria, and the world, has lost through this conflict.

Production company: Larm Film, Aleppo Media Center

Co-director Steen Johannessen

Producers: Søren Steen Jespersen, Kareem Abeed

Director of photography: Fadi al-Halabi/ cinematographers: Husam Al Halabi, Mojahed Abo Al Joud

Editors: Steen Johannessen, Michael Bauer

Additional shooting, Aleppo: Ebrahim Othman

Music: Karsten Fundal

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