In Aleppo, Syria, even as Bashar al-Assad’s regime destroys the city and its inhabitants with barrel bombs and airstrikes, many civilians risk their lives to rescue the injured and pull the dead from the rubble. Since 2013, these volunteers from all walks of life have created the Syrian Civil Defense, known to the world as The White Helmets.
In his documentary, Last Men in Aleppo, Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad delivers an unprecedented testimonial of their sacrifices and love for their besieged city. While bombs explode all around, White Helmets set off in their makeshift van, siren on, speeding to the latest site of destruction.
Khaled is the main character, and though by no means the only hero, one gets attached to his stoic persona. Khaled is calm, a rock of strength to his community, a loving father to his two lively children.
We follow his gaze as he looks to the sky, eyeing the approaching bombers. Sometimes, they are Assad’s, other times, they are Russian. The locals can tell them apart easily. Every sighting portends new attacks and death.
After the bombs drop
In the middle of a city in ruins, Khaled is one of the last men left in Aleppo to drag the injured and the dying from under tons of concrete.
They dig with shovels, with their hands, with everything they’ve got. One of the most emotionally draining scenes is the gentle pulling of an infant from under the debris. The White Helmets drag the child out, head first, through a sharp jagged hole of a collapsed building. The baby is bleeding and powdered with dust, but he’s alive.
Other children are not that lucky. The camera focuses steadily as they are dragged out, while people scream, sob and rush to cradle the small, limp bodies.
Filmmaker Feras Fayyad won one of the top awards at the Sundance Film Festival for Last Men in Aleppo. But he does not take full credit. The recording of these scenes was the work of a group of cinematographers, The Aleppo Media Center, who followed the White Helmets day and night under relentless bombings.
Fayyad said he wanted to call attention to the crimes against humanity committed in the city. He also wanted to show the world that these civilians who face death every day and live their lives in constant fear are no different than the rest of us.
“There are markets, houses with families, people who fight for common values,” he said. “No one is acting and the Syrians feel despondent. People did not choose this life. These people did not join ISIS. These people try to live,” he said.
Last Men in Aleppo focuses on those Syrians who chose to stay. Like Khaled.
He is very aware of the dangers his wife and children face daily. But he doesn’t want to run. He tells his friend Abu Yousef, another White Helmet, that refugees are treated inhumanely and fears that if he sends his kids away they could face a dire fate without him, and that he might never see them again.
“This is my city. I was born and raised here. Should I leave it to some stranger? I will not leave,” he said.
Fayyad’s documentary is an indictment of crimes against humanity. But it is also about compassion and resilience. In the middle of destruction, people still find joy among friends and family.
“This was one of the reasons that motivated me to make the story, the killings of civilians,” Fayyad said. “I started with the idea that the war brings out the worst in humans but also brings the best in humans.”
Fayyad started filming the siege of Aleppo in 2013. He said he was arrested and imprisoned twice and had to leave the city. He could not return because, “a huge number of people were being killed then by Russian bombings.”
After that, he employed the help of others, such as The Aleppo Media Center, video journalists and citizen journalists, who under his instructions would pick up a camera and document life and death in Aleppo. Nowadays, he lives in exile. He would face death should he return to Syria.
“I have the feeling of anger for the Russians, of course. I have the feeling of anger for the regime killing the Syrians every day. Now I’m sitting here in the studio and there are bombings in places next to my family that is still living in Syria and I could lose my family any time,” he said.
When asked if he was surprised by reports that Assad had gassed his own people, he said, “not at all.”
The film may be hard to watch but it must be watched. And though painful, it is also uplifting, depicting the altruism that cannot be smothered.
While Last Men in Aleppo focuses on those Syrians who choose to stay in their war-torn country, it also helps us empathize with those who leave. During the filming of this documentary, Khaled, like countless others, was killed saving his neighbors.