During the dull bits of Firas Fayyad’s heroically banal “Last Men in Aleppo,” the parts when the bombs fall like white noise and the babies of Syria are buried beneath the rubble like statistics, my mind kept returning to a famous observation from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” If you grew up in the American school system, you probably know what I’m talking about — it’s a childishly simple sentiment, but one that can’t be improved upon, only reiterated and reapplied:
“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”
After six years and more than 250,000 lives lost, what is there to say about the Syrian Civil War? What was there to say about it in the first place? Yes, it’s worth repeating that President Bashar al-Assad is pulverizing his own people (with some aerial help from the Russians), and that Trump’s dinner-time decision to bomb some potholes into a Syrian airfield somehow failed to stop the genocide, but that’s just context, and context only matters so much. What good is context when the roof is collapsing above you? What good is context when a group of men are passing around a severed foot and trying to figure out if it belonged to one of their friends?
I sure as shit don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and Fayyad’s film — a remarkable document of life during wartime — suggests that there aren’t any profound revelations to be found amidst the ruins. “It cannot be comprehended by humans,” sighs one of Fayyad’s subjects as he gathers his wits between rescue missions. A vérité portrait of The White Helmets, the volunteer group of ordinary civilians (workers, students, etc.) who have effectively been operating as Syria’s 9-1-1 since 2013, “Last Men in Aleppo” is less about finding meaning amidst a massacre than it is about people who are trying to survive without it.
Fayyad embedded himself with the White Helmets for two years (the most recent of his footage comes from August 2016), and the footage with which he fled his home country is as horrifying as you might expect, and perhaps more horrifying than you can imagine. It is also deeply humane. While his film makes good on the promise of its title, introducing a few of the various men who have refused to flee from their city, the brunt of Fayyad’s focus is reserved for a guy named Khaled Omar Harrah.
Khaled is instantly likable, and not just because one of the first things we see him do is chuckle and call and call Bashar a “motherfucker.” He’s warm, genial, and uncertain of what to do about the nightmare that has swallowed his life whole; one minute he’s enthusiastically playing soccer with his friends, the next he’s running from an airstrike and mumbling about his imminent death. The casualness with which he pulls a dead child out of a collapsed building somehow — impossibly — makes the moment even more tragic. In the film’s most powerful scene, he’s lovingly interrogated by one of the kid’s he’s saved, the little boy staring up at him like he’s Michael Jordan.
Part of Khaled wants to flee from his home and head for Turkey with his children. “The dilemma is our children” he says, and Fayyad calls attention to the man’s choice of words. It is a dilemma: On the one hand, none of the city’s remaining pharmacies have the vitamins needed to help his malnourished daughter. On the other hand, he believes it his responsibility to plant seeds among the cinders and help shepherd the next generations. “Last Men in Aleppo” doesn’t dwell on that terrible inner conflict, nor does it bother detailing how the citizens of Syria continue to go about their daily lives as best they can.
Instead, Fayyad drifts through the purgatory of waiting to die. He captures the action in an order so arbitrary that it might as well be chronological, striking an uneasy balance between non-fiction narrative and a nebulous sense of dread. One of the White Helmets asks: “Should we sit down and cry or what?,” and it often feels as though the film is posing the same question to us. Eventually, every new scene just becomes more of the same. By the end, Fayyad’s camera sees Syria through the same uncomprehending eyes as Khaled’s goldfish. The film’s haunting string music and its occasional, sudden reliance on poetics tend to suggest that the filmmaker isn’t comfortable with the limbo that he’s captured so well, but what else could he possibly have been hoping to find?
“Last Men in Aleppo” is scattered and distant, and the story that it works to create eventually escapes the film and resolves offscreen. At the same time, however, it’s also an unforgettable and essential documentary about something that demands to be seen, even if it can never hope to be understood.
“Last Men in Aleppo” is now in theaters.