Of all the news to come out of this weekend’s G20 Summit in Hamburg, one that got lost amidst the incessant headline shuffle was the announcement of a ceasefire in Syria. Given the track record of those agreements within the region — and the involvement of Russia in those talks — it may not be a historic or lasting peace. But as warring sides look to find a solution to the violence in the region, it’s vital to keep in mind the human consequences to these diplomatic actions.
Monday night, on the PBS documentary series “POV,” the network will show Feras Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo,” a chronicle of work being done by The White Helmets in the Syrian city. As the opening text of the Sundance Jury Prize-winning film explains, these individuals are a volunteer relief organization, formed by individuals from disparate walks of life with the goal of providing relief to the victims of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s vicious attacks against his own people.
The airing of this doc comes one week after the series’ previous installment “The War Show” made its TV debut. Directed by Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon, this film serves as a tracking of unrest in the region, from the beginning of the Syrian uprisings against Assad forces, all the way through the devastating aftermath of an escalating civil war. This timeline is filtered through the experience of Zytoon and a group of her friends and colleagues, who filmed, broadcast and reported from the front lines of a changing country.
Together, these two documentaries form a vital and necessary window into the prologue and ongoing horror of what the region continues to face. By focusing the devastation in Syria through the eyes of individuals who have seen their nation transformed, it’s a reminder that this is not merely an abstract talking point unfolding half a world away. It’s an urgent call to action or, at the very least, a call to recognize the conditions that have become a part of everyday life for those living under the threat of cluster bombs and gunfire.
“The War Show” reinforces the idea that the power of video images can be a double-edged sword. We are able to see the overwhelming power of a jubilant group of protesters, united in their stance against an authoritarian regime. But those same demonstrators acknowledge that through censorship and manipulation, government communication channels make it easy to suppress dissent and present to partisans an alternative view of public approval. Though most of “Last Men in Aleppo” deals with the aftermath of these bombings, sifting through the collapsed wreckage, it also charts a handful of attacks as they unfold.
Both of these documentaries also give chilling context to the weight of how long these conflicts have raged. “The War Show” shows activists in conversation, explaining that the year 2014 would be too long of a wait for a change in regime. Separated into chronological chapters, the film tracks events throughout the past five years. The enthusiasm of vast crowds of anti-Assad demonstrators at various points throughout that timeline shows that this resentment has been building up for far longer.
Syria has unexperienced massive physical destruction, shown simply as White Helmets volunteers play soccer in the shadow of a leveled, half-standing building. What both of these films also demonstrate is the instantaneous, unceremonious loss experienced by those fighting to preserve vestiges of their old way of life. In “The War Show,” one heartbreaking sequence shows a pre-war day at the beach, spent between two young lovers. In context at the film’s start and played again at its end shows the fundamental change in the status quo. As different members within these two inner circles are kidnapped, jailed and killed, it’s jarring to see how these disappearances happen in an instant.
Branching out from the seismic changes in these people’s lives, “The War Show” is also a valuable chronicle of the small, insidious shifts that signal the conflict to come before a shot is even fired. Military officers demanding that individual citizens declare allegiance to the country’s leader, a large demonstration of pro-Assad supporters all raising their right arms in an authoritarian salute, all captured on camera. These are documents of an entrenched, change-resistant ideology taking hold.
When viewing these films in tandem, those incremental changes towards chaos give way to something more stark and definitive in “Last Men in Aleppo.” With that shift in reality already in place, Fayyad captures the physical and psychological toll that the violence takes on those who make it their mission to tend to the victims. The matter-of-fact declaration of discovering body parts, the constant assumption that this work will lead to their death, the parade of children being pulled from rubble as family members look on in horror — by the end of a few hours of film runtime, it’s clear that this was become a pedestrian form of evil that Aleppo’s citizens were confronted with before full evacuations ended in late 2016.
Still, despite the overwhelming sadness that comes with seeing these images on screen, both of these films do provide glimmers of hope for those who lived through it. In “The War Show,” and an opening rally shows demonstrators in a united cry of ”Muslims and Christians, freedom for all!” joining together in voices against the established government. Even in darkness, there is a sense of unity from the past that can help guide whatever course of action comes next.
Watching White Helmets members and small children celebrate a break in the violence on a playground shows the resilience of a community that was thrust into a horrific cycle of attacks. Even though the tiny moments of relief are soon interrupted, “Last Men in Aleppo” imagines what a future after conflict might look like for the smallest children who’ve known no alternative.
As a divided world looks for answers, this is a testament to the ongoing tragedies that faced these individuals every day. While the future in the region is still uncertain, these films stand as a reminder that being mindful of its past is just as vital.
“Last Men in Aleppo” airs Monday, July 10 on PBS. “The War Show” is available through PBS’ POV website until August 1.