Born out of street protests at a time when the ecstasy of change was sweeping the Arab world, the Syrian revolution—and subsequent civil war—has become a six year hell on earth. Since fighting broke out between rebel forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad roughly 500,000 have been killed and millions more displaced. Over the past year, the Syrian city of Aleppo has become the victim of the conflict's power imbalance and Assad's fearsome disregard for innocent lives. Bombs dropped by Syrian and allied Russian jets have reduced a once-vibrant metropolis to a graveyard of piled homes, and hope for a peaceful and just end to the conflict remains out of reach.
Born out of this atrocity is the Syria Civil Defense, known more widely as the White Helmets. This all-volunteer group of untrained emergency responders has made it its mission to rush to the scene of bombings in order to dig out and save as many human lives as possible. The White Helmets' profile in international media skyrocketed thanks to Netflix's 40 minute film of the same name. Today, the Oscar-winning documentary is the best-known story of the Civil Defense's work. But it's far from the only one.
Directed by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad, Last Men in Aleppo is an upcoming feature-length portrait of the White Helmets that delves far deeper into the personal lives and struggles of Aleppo's heroic first responders. At 100 minutes, it unravels at a slower and more emotive pace, interspersing scenes of heartbreaking destruction with bright moments of repose, and self-reflection from men who shoulder the absurd burden of digging out from the wreckage of war with their bare hands.
In Last Men In Aleppo, Fayyad has made a full and vivid document of war. It brilliantly renders the deep horror and shaky hope of the White Helmets, who emerge as kind, engaged, and imperfect people that, like those they rush to save, suffer so much and yet endure. The film premieres in Los Angeles later this month, and a nationwide release is due later this year. During a recent trip to New York, Fayyad spoke about his filmmaking process, as well as his hopes for Syria's future.
Can you describe the shooting process? Were you in Aleppo for one long period of time, or were there trips in and out of the besieged city? The idea to make this film started in 2013. Back then, the White Helmets had started to congregate, but they were not known by that name. It was just people running to protect their neighborhoods, their neighbors' families. This is their motivation: they just want to help and protect their families. Then I started to follow a guy named Rahed, and through Rahed I started to meet Khaeld and Mahmoud.
Then I began cooperating with Aleppo Media Center, which are local journalists, video journalists, cinematographers. Some of them studied it as a career, some got their experience during the war. They started shooting for me when I was outside of Syria.
So there were parts of the shooting process where you were not there, and they were capturing footage? Yes, locals.
You didn't work with a crew that came in, shot, and then left? No, I worked with local people from Syria, all of them. Especially during 2015, I couldn't enter Aleppo. It was besieged from the outside. I tried, during that time, to explain to all of them it was their safety that comes first. There's nothing more important than your life. We need to continue, we need to keep telling these stories.
When I was outside Syria, I wrote notes to them, and they tried to follow stories that were interesting, talking to characters. I know what I want exactly, and when there's something happening, we have to follow this line or that line—decide what's important. I sent them notes, they uploaded footage, I watched and wrote back notes like "get closer" and "You have to use tighter frames. You have to change the angle." What's happening behind the Last Men in Aleppo is using all these film school tools to explain what we need to say.
Were there ever moments where you or your crew felt compelled to put the cameras down, stop filming, and help them with their work? Yes, many times. We've been in situation when we had the camera in one hand and with the other hand we tried to help the people. Sometimes we threw the camera down because it's not about objectivity vs. subjectivity. It's not about journalism. It's not about filmmaking. It's about humanity. You are in a moral situation. You have to put the camera down. If you rescue another life, it makes sense. You won't shoot a moment and let them die. Everyone—every journalist, because we are sons of that country, anyone. A lot of international journalists and international filmmakers did the same. They threw their cameras down and started to help people. These are the rules, you are a human.
What's your opinion of the ongoing smear campaign against the White Helmets—people claiming that they are Al Qaeda propaganda, that they're puppets of the F.S.A. or Qaeda?
The Russian and Syrian regime and those who support them, they have their stories. But the real story I can tell, that that I've been witnessing while shooting, is the White Helmets on the ground were made up of Syrian people, many of whom decided to leave their weapons and join the White Helmets. A lot of them, they had been armed, but they put down their guns and found themselves in the White Helmets. In the group, every one of them has their own political opinion. You can't say, for somebody, that they should not. They have their way of thinking, but as a group, as volunteers, they have a mission to rescue everybody that's in harm's way. Nobody directs them to do this and not that.
It's more about their responsibility to their citizens, their friends ,their neighbors. In many instances they rescue Iranian fighters. They rescue Assad supporters and send them back to the regime. A lot of them—of course you can't say all of these volunteers kept going in their volunteer work. Some of them left it and did return to the army.
How upsetting is it to witness widespread international outcry over chemical weapons, but essentially silence and ignorance when it comes to conventional bombs? We see in the film the huge amount of damage that barrel bombs and cluster bombs are doing to Aleppo, but chemical weapons seems to be the only thing that gets the West involved and engaged. Actually, the last time that they used chemical weapons in Syria, it's not the first time. It's been used in Aleppo three times, in the Damascus countryside more than four times, in the countryside of Idlib more than four times. The silence on Syria was kept in the beginning. What made ISIS come and Al Qaeda come was that silence from the international community.
That made a place for ISIS, and the Syrian regime was happy for it because it helped them with their agenda. Saying, "These are the people you're supporting, they're terrorists, they don't believe in freedom of speech or democracy." More ISIS means more reason for Assad to stay in power, and a reason to continue what he's done, supposedly "fighting terrorism" while killing more and more people. Many journalists, even, he's called Al Qaeda.
And this is what's also happening in the U.S.—anywhere where the authority controls the life of the people, or tries to destroy the freedom of speech and declare journalists their enemies. All of these freedoms are taken from people's lives.
It's impossible not to compare Last Men in Aleppo to the White Helmets documentary produced by Netflix. Your film is quite different, in ways that very apparent. There's a lot more artful cinematography. It's color graded in a way that makes things visually stunning. What was the value, for you, in making scenes of horrific violence look nice, even perhaps beautiful? This mostly came from the photography background of the videojournalists and cinematorgraphers who shot the movie. They understand shadow and light, they understand composition and depth of field. They understand layers and the rules of photography. All of the time, we were thinking of how we can capture moments in beautiful ways and how we can tell this story in a human way. We need it. We need to use the beautiful—the tools of cinema. It can help you to give a more human feeling to everything around you. It's what we love, to tell the story in a cinematic way, and we saw all these documentaries coming from Syria that were just collected footage.
The most gripping, central piece of footage in the Netflix documentary is collected cell phone footage that wasn't even taken by the film crew. But you have scene after scene after scene of rescues, rubble, injured bodies, and the Civil Defense working. We see them after they've spent many hours on the job. That was important to you? This is one of the main goals of making the movie, and main conflict with the funding side because everyone else is making documentaries one single way: interviews, voiceover, some footage. There's reference for the arts. But I sent paintings to the cinematographers to consider, to think about how to make compositions, to capture the city in the midst of the war.
All the time we were thinking about how we could use beauty to create an arc of storytelling, support our story, and give us more. This is also the perspective of Khaled: he loved life and found ways to ignore death around him. In the moment which his city is captured, he goes to buy fish.
These warm moments that you capture with these men are as important and intense as the very very harrowing times. But about those difficult moments—there's much more gore in your film than in what many other news outlets are either willing or able to show. Certainly we don't see so many corpses in the Netflix documentary. What was important to you about not hiding body parts, the corpses of children? Did you know from the beginning that you needed that in this film? Yes. Of course. I believe that if we want to show something, we have to show it clearly. I believe that the shocking image can leave a lasting effect. People need to see with their eyes the bodies of the children that are killed. The crimes, the evidence of what's happened there. At the same time it's reflecting on the main characters. It's showing their thought process, it puts the audience in the moment and position of the father who's all the time watching children be killed.
This world is not beautiful and clean. It's not La la Land. The world is harder and tougher than you can imagine, and there's people fighting for the meaning of their lives. The love of their lives. This is what I'm trying to show in a documentary.
My last question: are you at all hopeful that we'll see an end to the conflict? Do you think that Assad will be able to remain in power and there'll be peace in Syria, but no justice? I think the best step for changing the reality in Syria is removing Assad. It's a step for justice. Removing Assad is justice, that's justice for everyone. Nobody will accept it, if you're Syrian, you won't accept Assad.
Many Americans refuse to accept certain politicians around them because they take from them. They harm them. But the offenses here are small, they can't compare to what's happening in Syria. For us, the first step of removing Assad is the best for who supported him, and who's opposed to him. We have evidence of the crimes done by Assad. This evidence should go to lawyers, be put in front of prosecutors, and justice should come in that way. As far as the future of Syria, I don't know what will happen. Nothing good. You can't look to the future of this country. But every conflict in the world will end. Conflicts end. It won't be tomorrow, or a year from now. It's going to take a hundred years to repair Syria.
There's a line in your film—"It's not about us. The children are the dilemma." Yes. That's it.