Today’s Film: The Last Men in Aleppo
The White Helmets, voluntary first responders during the Syrian Civil War, have been recognized by the International community as a glimpse of hope amidst the destroyed city of Aleppo, the country’s second biggest city after Damascus. In contrast to the Oscar winning documentary, The White Helmets, director Firas Fayyad creates his own unflinching, boots-on-the-ground glimpse into the lives of these men looking to save survivors and salvage their native city.
Rather than offer an endless stream of jarring expeditions, the White Helmets are given names, emotions, and their own backstories. Fayyad curates his work to immediately follow the men on their missions, and wastes no time with unnecessary nuances and background information to the conflict. Because, as we all know, Syria is at the forefront of states’ foreign policies and our news headlines.
The brutality of war and grim prospects are not held back by Fayyad, yet the men’s respective situations outside their work are astounding. Aleppo's citizens rely on fewer supplies as sieges escalate, but their mannerisms and relationships are kept civil and friendly. Moments such as sharing coffee and parents bringing their children to the park remain undaunted by the screams of fighter jets in the sky.
The city remains embroiled in Al-Asad’s proposed cease fires that never last and growing isolation from the rest of the country. Despite this, the crowds remain politically motivated to oppose the Al-Asad regime with demonstrations and denounce Russia’s backing of the government.
The main characters, Khaled and Mahmoud, do not view themselves as chivalrous, benevolent saviors, but work for the common good of humanity. Notwithstanding the destruction, scarce resources, and eroded infrastructure, Aleppo is their home and they will die there.
However, doubts arise during their duties. Both central characters struggle to judge their efforts as progressive or futile. Khaled is the optimistic leader for his White Helmet division. His children are malnourished and he contemplates leaving the White Helmets and make for the Syrian-Turkish border. The dilemma is whether to leave their home or make for a border where a brighter future is uncertain. The danger of the road to the Turkish border is an enigma compared to the dangers Khaled knows in Aleppo. Khaled feels he is being called to leave, but he knows that no one will replace his position with the White Helmets.
Mahmoud struggles with both his duties to the White Helmets and protecting his brother, also a member. Both brothers have told their sick parents that they are working in Turkey, rather than tell them the truth of remaining in the war zone. He does not view his actions as heroic or triumphant. While he is offered praise from a family for saving a young boy from debris, he humbly rejects them. His optimism is not to Khaled’s level, and Mahmoud displays cynicism and despair of Syria’s situation as more White Helmet centres are bombed and abandoned.
As much as the White Helmets are shown to be up to date on current events through their media outlets, the director knows his audiences are as connected as well.
In today’s globalized world, social media and international news do not escape these volunteers. They understand the domestic and international complexities of the Syrian Civil War, and ask each other questions regarding the role of humanity and how the international world seems so silent during their struggles. This is Fayyad’s subtle, yet meaningful appeal to the international audiences. Concerns and sympathy are felt for those affected by the war during the film’s screenings, but there are also feelings of impotence and helplessness in the audience.
As the first responders, the White Helmets have selflessly endured for the good of Aleppo. The city caught in-between all sides of the war, where the citizens do what they can to maintain their daily lives. The Last Men in Aleppo was a necessary film. It offers a scale of the deprivation and erosion of the city, and carefully balances the personal stories of the men sacrificing everything, notwithstanding their own pessimism and fears.