[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Last Men in Aleppo.”]
Serious production challenges befell numerous Oscar-nominated films of 2018, from inclement weather and tight budgets to a key actor who required replacing weeks before release day. Yet with “Last Men in Aleppo,” the first Syrian title ever to vie for Academy honors, director Feras Fayyad likely endured the most.
Making his Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary meant returning to his home nation, where a previous film — “On the Other Side,” about a Syrian poet exiled to the Czech Republic — earned Fayyad 15 months’ imprisonment and torture. His first arrest occurred March 2011. That same month, three democratic-leaning citizens were killed by government officials while peacefully protesting the jailing of progressive teen graffiti artists. The act sparked the ongoing Syrian Civil War, strife that resulted in an estimated 465,000 deaths by year six. President Bashar al-Assad refuses to resign, maintaining the post he has held since succeeding his late father in 2000.
In Aleppo, the second-most populous Syrian city prior to the war, Fayyad said residents contend with 15 to 25 bombings per day. He and his cinematographer resolved to document the destruction from the vantage of White Helmets, aka the Syrian Civil Defense, a band of approximately 100 to 120 male volunteer first-responders in Aleppo who extract bodies from the rubble. Since its 2013 inception, the White Helmets claim to have saved more than 99,000 civilians.
“Many times it was like, ‘Ignore me,’ and they didn’t want me to film with them, and they were sometimes upset and would reject me,” said Fayyad, Skyping from Switzerland. He spent two months convincing them that his only intention was to “witness what they witness, the challenges that they face, and show each of them as a human being, as a normal human being, not Superman, and also not the victims.”
Fayyad filmed for three years, but only used cinéma-vérité footage that followed Russia’s October 2015 decision to align itself with President al-Assad by carrying out airstrikes against his constituents. Russia’s lone Mediterranean Sea-accessible naval base is located in Tartus, Syria, about 150 miles from Aleppo.
He found two protagonists in their late 20s: former construction worker/painter Khaled Omar Harrah and Mahmoud Al-Hattar, a onetime philosophy student. “The White Helmets, it is like a ground for the young people who were looking for a place to change their society, and not choose to be armed people involved in the conflict, or leave their country.”
Harrah spent months at a time living in the White Helmet center — salvaged from former government offices — away from his wife and two young daughters. “He had this character of Robert De Niro,” said Fayyad. “A street guy… a lovely guy, he can make you laugh from your heart.”
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
Living in constant, dire circumstances did not dull Harrah’s playfulness. We see him play soccer, take his girls to a playground, and buy pet goldfish from a street vendor. He even slips out of a protest by deadpanning to a friend, “Let’s overthrow the regime at my place.” “He just wants to ignore everything around him,” said Fayyad, calling Harrah “a guy who wants to have fun, and even when everything around him is unbelievable and unacceptable.”
Throughout the film, Harrah also debates whether to flee to Turkey with his family, particularly after one of his children is diagnosed as malnourished. Fayyad himself escaped through Jordan to Turkey after his second arrest; the 33-year-old now lives in Denmark with his wife and daughter. Although Fayyad admits feeling guilty and wanting to stay — his parents remain in Syria — he felt he had no choice. Previously, he left the country in the early aughts to study visual arts and filmmaking in Paris, returning to the capital, Damascus, in 2006, to work in TV drama before transitioning to BBC and Al Jazeera documentaries.
Each White Helmet, according to Fayyad, was torn “between their love for their work and their love for their family,” knowing that leaving would deny Aleppo an experienced rescuer. What interested Fayyad the most was not dashing to a casualty site but “what kind of conversations they had…how they spent their alone time, how they sleep, what kind of dreams they had, what kind of life they wanted, what kind of beauty they discovered, what kind of ugly they saw.”
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
Between missions, Harrah frequently, and prophetically, joked to Fayyad, “You will not end this film until I am killed.” He died on August 11, 2016, while on duty, one of six White Helmets in “Last Men in Aleppo” who did not survive to see the completed film. After Harrah died, his wife gave birth to their son, whom she named after him. “Last Men in Aleppo” is dedicated to his memory.
Fayyad’s wrenching footage contains several corpses. The most jarring shots are of a young boy with blood on his face blinking into a camera — we watch Al-Hattar react to the news that he died soon after at the hospital — and the confusing, maddening reality of seeing Harrah, shirtless and on stretcher, being carried to a grave that is still being dug.
For the White Helmets, “There was this moral side to these dead bodies,” said Fayyad, who followed volunteers as they sifted through debris for missing limbs, trying to identify fallen comrades by their shoes. “They have a lot of respect.”
Last month, three days before Oscar ballots were due, Fayyad became the target of a Russian takedown campaign on social media. He has been portrayed as untrustworthy and accused of lying about his shooting locations. It has been implied that his characters are terrorists, with one article labeling “Last Men in Aleppo” an “Al-Qaeda promotional film.”
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
Fayyad’s film is part of a burgeoning collection of recent documentaries about the Syrian Civil War. “Cries from Syria” and Amazon’s “City of Ghosts” were fellow Sundance 2017 premieres. “The White Helmets” won Netflix its first Oscar last year, for Best Documentary (Short Subject), a category that included two more Syrian stories (“4.1 Miles” and “Watani: My Homeland”). The Tribeca Film Festival that followed included, “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS.” “Last Men in Aleppo” aired as an episode of the PBS series “POV,” as did the thematically similar “The War Show.” Sundance 2018 brought yet another perspective on the clash, “This Is Home: A Refugee Story.”
“I’m glad to see any filmmaker doing a film about Syria and appreciate that, actually,” he said. It’s great. It’s important… I try to make friendships with all these filmmakers.”
His next project, also set in Syria, focuses on female doctors who established an underground hospital. While both films contain elements that are “very sad,” Fayyad said he’s endlessly inspired “to see these people who fight the machine of war.”
“Last Men in Aleppo” is now streaming on Netflix.