One of the heaviest films to come out of Sundance earlier this year was the documentary “Last Men in Aleppo.”
Like its title suggests, the film centers around a group of Syrian men who left normal, civilian jobs to form an unofficial emergency response unit known in the community as the White Helmets. The men risk their lives every day by staring death in the face, whether it be scouting the Russian bomb-dropping planes or attempting to rescue their injured neighbors on the ground. The Grand Jury Prize: World Cinema Documentary winner is coming to select theaters this Friday, and while it should be considered essential viewing, it is definitely an emotionally challenging film.
Leaving their families and what little security they have behind to work a job that puts their lives in constant jeopardy, the White Helmets are the epitome of selfless heroes. The Syrian civil war has been an increasingly relentless bloodbath for the people of Aleppo, and director Feras Fayyad does not shy away from showing the heartbreaking casualties. Right off the bat, we are shown rescue footage of children trapped in the rubble, dead babies, and other images that are sure to leave a lasting impression. We are thrust onto the front lines alongside Khaled, Mahmoud, Subhi, and other volunteers as they navigate through the chaos and confusion.
But this isn’t just a shock and awe documentary, nor does it rely on its graphic nature to attract attention. The heart of the film, and the reason why it is one of the most compelling documentaries of 2017 thus far, lies in the story of a group of men who sacrifice everything for their community, while the prospect of peace remains a distant and unattainable facade. Some, we come to find out, sacrifice their lives for the cause. Others question why no one has come to support their efforts and wonder if anyone, other Arabs and the West alike, even care.
The uprising of the Syrian civil war has been a relentless bloodbath for the people of Aleppo, and director Feras Fayyad does not shy away from showing the heartbreaking casualties of this war.
Director Feras Fayyad shoots “Last Men in Aleppo” in a style that exuberates naturalness in the most unnatural of situations. This cinema vérité style is unfiltered and raw but it is the only way a story like this should be told.
Sprinkled in between the moments of despair are moments of hope. In one scene, a White Helmet comes face to face with a young boy he rescued just days earlier. The boy, who could not have been more than six years old, had massive head trauma and intense bleeding when he was pulled out from under the rubble of his own home. The reunion is a bittersweet one for the volunteer– one moment he praises God for the boy’s health and the next, he is reminded of those he could not save and falls into a somber mood.
“Last Men in Aleppo” holds a great deal of cinematic importance for its timeliness and historical context. The closing frames of the film reveal that even today, millions are still under siege in Syria and live in daily fear over the anticipation of waiting for the next bomb to drop. If this film does nothing else, It serves as an eye-opening experience to those who are unfamiliar with the crisis abroad and you will not leave without putting faces to the statistics we hear about on the news.
“Last Men in Aleppo” is not rated. 110 minutes. Opening this Friday at the Laemmle Music Hall.