The ongoing war in Syria has waged for the better part of seven years, displacing and killing millions of people. One of the most publicized and explored events of this war is the Battle of Aleppo, a four-year-long siege of Syria’s largest city concluding in 2016. Filmmaker Firas Fayyad showcases the seemingly insurmountable challenges and hardest choices of the Syria Civil Defence (also known as the White Helmets) as they struggle amidst the debris of their city to save lives. While observing the volunteer organization search, rescue, and maintain their family, The Last Men in Aleppo blends the observational and the poetic into a sporadically uneven yet hauntingly effective film.
“…blends the observational and the poetic into a…hauntingly effective film.”
A hypnotic opening credit sequence crafted by Henrik Bohn Ipsen skews initial expectations as we dive alongside the crisis-hardened White Helmets in war-torn Syria. The film follows Khaled, Subhi and Mahmoud for two years as they respond to and mitigate the fallout from the ongoing siege. As supplies dwindle and equipment continually breaks down, the race to rescue victims is fraught with exhaustive destruction, pushing these men past their absolute limits. As the city braces against daily bombings and barrages, more civilians opt to flee into Turkey to outrun the urban conflict which would leave an estimated 31,000 people dead. The film rarely leaves the White Helmets’ sides, intensifying and insulating for brief moments to take in the full emotional impact of the conflict on each individual person; or pulling back so far as to encapsulate the full and utter annihilation of Aleppo with stunning drone photography.
Fayyad’s personal investment in the subject heavily courses throughout the full runtime (and his filmography), focusing on the war, the work, the people and the pain equally and with great respect. Karsten Fundal has crafted a sparse yet poignant score, a harrowing sadness underscores every sequence its employed. Cinematographer Fadi Al Halabi, after shooting the same-subject-Oscar-winning short The White Helmets (2016), has returned in top form to document moments both monumental and minute, where individual impact of the war matches the full scope of those affected. Johannessen and Michael Bauer deliver a sharp and desperately frantic edit, acutely capturing the atmosphere and tempo of each moment. When intercutting between the on-the-ground sections and the quasi-periodic cinematic poetry of Aleppo’s shattered cityscape, the edit stutters with its tone and focus, coming off more grandiose than seriously contemplative; though ultimately the film maintains its overall integrity.
“…a harrowing sadness scores every sequence.”
Bodies and limbs are pulled repeatedly from the ever-increasing rubble of Aleppo throughout the film, the sound layered with wailing tears amidst the drying blood, spent bullets and settling ash. Fayyad insulates his ever-present dread between the White Helmets bandaging each travesty in a thoroughly convincing and empathetic package (several of the men documented would not survive to see the film’s completion). There isn’t any clarity as to what to do, as there isn’t any time available other than promptly reacting to the damage, hopelessness and disillusionment echoing amongst Aleppo’s last remaining heros. The Last Men in Aleppo documents a catastrophic crisis that still requires international attention, its mishmash of methods produce an effective end result, albeit lacking considerable evocation beyond the subject’s raw intensity to sway its audience.
The Last Men in Aleppo (2017) Directed by Firas Fayyad. Written by Firas Fayyad. Starring Khaled Umar Harah, Batul, Mahmoud, Abu Umar.
★★★★ / ☆☆☆☆☆