The White Helmets
"Last Men in Aleppo" One of 2017's Best Doc Features
One of the best doc features of 2017, Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad's Last Men in Aleppo opens the door to the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defence, a group of neutral, unarmed ordinary citizens who are the first to rush toward military strikes in the hope of saving lives.
Now then, while it may sound like Last Men in Aleppo is a relentlessly harrowing film then one of the most surprising things about the film may very well be that it's not. While there's plenty of harrowing situations to be found in Last Men in Aleppo, there's an undercurrent of normalcy that makes everything that occurs in the film that much more jarring.
Fayyad followed the White Helmets over the course of a year as they deal with the very real consequences of the bombs falling from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Russia's Vladimir Putin, bombs that have decimated large sections of the country including the city of Aleppo, Syria's second largest city and the city where much of what unfolds in The Last Men in Aleppo occurs. The film most closely follows two of the White Helmets living in Aleppo - Khaled, a former house painter and a bit of a celebrity known for being the central figure in widely seen footage of him pulling a baby out of the rubble of a bombed out building in 2014, and Mahmoud, an ambulance driver who spends his days driving from place to place in hopes of rescuing the injured and recovering the dead. In both cases, the men's stories again reinforce a sense of surprising normalcy, a powerful reminder that amidst the backdrop of an unfathomable war the lives that we witness are lives of ordinary human beings much like us but in a different location and in very different circumstances.
D.P. Hadi al Halabi masterfully captures both the urgency of the bombings as they occur and the otherworldly quality of everything that is left in the aftermath. The images contained in The Last Men in Aleppo are the kind of images that linger in the psyche' long after the closing credits have scrolled on by. One scene, in particular, hasn't left my mind since watching - Mahmoud returns to a neighborhood where a group of children had been rescued, one young boy clinging to his hand as if absolutely paralyzed by the idea of letting go of this savior. Meanwhile, there is a rare trip to a playground that, unimaginably, still stands. Not so unimaginably, the moments of innocence of play are shortlived as the military catches wind of a group gathered at the location and everyone is forced to urgently vacate the scene to avoid the expected bombing that will follow.
Last Men in Aleppo is an unforgettable film, a film that manages to capture the remarkable cruelty that we can do to one another alongside the complete and utter miracle of those who will sacrifice everything they have, including their lives, in an effort to serve their community and save the lives of others. Winner of the Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival along with a host of other festival prizes, Last Men in Aleppo will most assuredly be mentioned during this awards season once the season's Academy Award nominations are announced.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic