'Last Men in Aleppo' – prize-winning documentary about the city’s rescuers

Documentary 'Last Men in Aleppo' is about gruelling day-to-day work of White Helmets.
Sunday 05/02/2017
A 2016 picture shows members of the Syrian Civil Defence evacuating a child in the rebel-held eastern Ghouta area, east of the capital Damascus. (AFP)
A 2016 picture shows members of the Syrian Civil Defence evacuating a child in the rebel-held eastern Ghouta area, east of the capital Damascus. (AFP)

Beirut - “What is shown in the documentary illustrates just a small part of the suffering that we have been through,” said Ibrahim al-Haj, a member of Syria’s civil de­fence White Helmet teams operat­ing in rebel-held areas that came to be known as the White Helmets.

The documentary Last Men in Aleppo is about the gruelling day-to-day work of the White Helmets. It recently won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Directed by Syrian film-maker Feras Fayyad and co-directed and co-edited by Steen Johannessen of Denmark, the film follows two members of the White Helmets — Khaled Harrah and Mahmoud Heter — as they work through the rubble and ruins of bombed buildings trying to rescue victims after each attack from the air during the siege of eastern Aleppo

“Khaled was martyred while res­cuing civilians, as Mahmoud strug­gled to dig out victims from under the debris of destroyed buildings. The sufferings were much, much bigger than anyone could imagine,” Haj said in a telephone interview from Idlib in north-western Syria.

Fayyad’s film was shot over two years beginning in 2014 while bombs from Syrian and Russian planes rained on Aleppo, restrict­ing the movement of the volunteers and the 250,000 civilians — the ones remaining from a pre-war popula­tion of more than 2 million — to an ever-smaller part of the city. When­ever a bomb reduced a building to ruins, the White Helmets would ar­rive as quickly as possible to rescue the injured.

Film coordinator Khaled Khatib stressed the importance of the doc­umentary as a testament to the self­lessness and courage of the White Helmets.

“We feel it is important for peo­ple and average citizens around the world to know that in Syria there are people who are struggling for peace and humanity,” Khatib said. “Unfor­tunately, the image they have about Syria nowadays is that there is merely a war between [the Islamic State] ISIS and the regime.”

“We wanted to show the sacri­fices of these volunteers, who they are, what their mission is, how they work and under what conditions. Also, we tried to shed light on the humanitarian catastrophe that was taking place. When you see the film, you will know the extent of suffer­ing of the people who were living in Aleppo,” added Khatib, who spoke via telephone from Turkey.

White Helmet volunteers and their civil defence centres are often targeted. Planes would bomb civil­ians and circle back to bomb rescue workers who were responding to the first attack.

“We have lost more than 159 White Helmets volunteers, martyrs killed in different parts of Syria. Also, some 83 members have been totally disabled after losing limbs or their eyesight,” Haj said.

The last scenes of the documen­tary were filmed one week before the fall of eastern Aleppo to regime forces, cameraman Mujahid Abu al- Joud said by phone from Turkey.

“We started filming two years ago under very difficult conditions but the last few months were the worst,” he said. “More than once we have been directly targeted while escorting the civil defence teams, going into extremely dangerous zones.”

The worst situation, however, which Joud said will mark him for­ever, was when Khaled Harrah, one of the film’s two protagonists, was killed in the bombardment while carrying out his duties.

“It was a big shock for all of us to see one of the main characters disappear,” Joud said. “He was a friend and someone that we have been following for more than a year-and-a-half. We were all affected by his death. None of the cameramen could film the incident.”

Reviews of Last Men in Aleppo noted the many children and young people the director interviewed. While representing the future of the country, Aleppo’s children offer a semblance of relative innocence and truth in a heavily politicised and propaganda-heavy conflict. It is heart-wrenching to see and hear small children talk about having their schools bombed, losing fam­ily members or dealing with fallout from chemical weapons.

The White Helmets, who were ac­cused by Syrian President Bashar Assad as being the “facelift of al- Nusra in Aleppo” and of faking res­cue operations for publicity, have been receiving quite some atten­tion. Orlando von Einsiedel’s short Netflix documentary The White Helmets has been nominated for an Academy Award and actor George Clooney is reportedly working on a feature version.

The film-makers behind The White Helmets said they planned on taking two members of the group to the February 26th Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles but US President Donald Trump’s travel ban — which affects Syria and six other countries — may prevent that.

The White Helmets producer Joan­na Natasegara said in a statement: “These people are the bravest hu­manitarians on the planet and the idea that they could not be able to come with us and enjoy that success is just abhorrent.”

The White Helmets are an unlike­ly group of heroes. They are tailors, bakers, teachers and other ordinary Syrians who banded together in 2013 to save the lives others were working so hard to take. They have saved more than 78,529 lives.

“Thank God our work is being ap­preciated and we have been award­ed more than 35 awards in the past three years, including nomination to the Noble Peace Prize,” Haj said. “This is an honour for us and for the Syrian revolution in general.”