CPH:DOX 2017 /Last Men in Aleppo


The tone is set in the opening, this story is of a universal scope. It is a film about life in a world of death and violence, of humanity surviving endless destruction.

Last Men in Aleppo is an homage to the White Helmets (officially the Syria Civil Defence), the civilian volunteer rescue corps that works relentlessly to save the lives of civilians in rebel-held areas of Syria. Filmed over a year, from September 2015 to fall 2016 up until Aleppo fell back in to the hands of Bashar al Assad’s government forces, the film is collaboration between the Syrian director, Feras Fayyad, the Aleppo Media Center, an independent news agency and network of reporters in Aleppo, and the Danish co-director and editor Steen Johannessen together with Danish producer Søren Steen Jespersen (Larm Film). Last Men in Aleppo won this year’s Grand Jury Price for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

We are introduced to the two main characters, Khaled and Mahmoud, one by one. Khaled, a former painter and decorator and one of the veterans of the White Helmets team, is a warm and playful man. But as the father of two young daughters, he is also haunted by the dilemmas of how to protect them best, should he have taken them to Turkey? is it still a possibility? Can he leave Aleppo, should he stay behind? Mahmoud, a student of philosophy before the revolution, is more quiet and thoughtful. His younger brother has also joined the White Helmets, they’ve lied to their parents, telling them that they are living safely in Turkey.

The days are spend heads leaned back, searching the sky for planes and helicopters bombing the city. As soon as the hit is located, get in to the car and drive straight to where the bomb has landed. Everyday life in Aleppo is barrel bombs, digging out dead babies from the rubble with their bare hands. A foot, a limb, who does it belong to? Body parts are carefully collected and handed over to relatives. And then, occasionally, the miracle: a child is found alive underneath the dusty fragments of what used to be his home.

The panoramic views of Aleppo are devastating. What’s in front of you seems unreal, the destruction unfathomable, apocalyptic. “Where is humanity?” as a member of the White Helmet team asks.

Why not leave? But how can you leave the place where you were born and have lived all your life? And for what? A refugee camp on the Turkish border? As an audience you cannot help but think how it must be to have been through all this and then end up loosing your child drowned in the Mediterranean.. In 2011, Aleppo was the largest city in Syria with 2,5 million inhabitants. In 2016, about 250.000 people live in the besieged eastern part of Aleppo, an estimated 100.000 of them are children.

The strength of the film is also how it portrays the life that exists and persists despite the hopeless situation, the exact civilian life that is being targeted by the bombs of the Assad-regime and, since 2015, the Russians. We meet the children living in Aleppo. An unforgettable sequence is a day trip to a playground, where the families of the White Helmets unit take a break from the horror. The joy of being outside – until another plane is roaming the sky..

The quality of the relationship the cinematographers on ground have with the characters makes you feel the sincerity in the scenes. The cinematography (shot with Canon cameras) is admirable, even more so with the difficult and highly dangerous circumstances in mind. The director of photography, Fadi al-Halabi, and the cinematographers, Thaher Mohamad and Hasan Kattan, from the Aleppo Media Center, risking their lives every moment of filming, have done an amazing work. The superb cinematography and editing is lifting the story up from film to cinema. But it is something else than that: it is documentation of war crimes and crimes against humanity, right there in front of your eyes. It is extremely disturbing and hard to watch.

A small ”but”: I found the music a bit too present at times. While the pathos of the music score (by composer Karsten Fundal) beautifully accompanies the opening of the film, I found it to be disturbing me in some of the strong scenes inside the film..

Last Men in Aleppo is a film you have to see. Everybody should see it. The film is screened at the opening of CPH:DOX on March 15, marking the 6th anniversary of the Syrian uprising.

Last Men in Aleppo, Denmark/Syria 2017, 110 min. Directed by Feras Fayyad, co-director and editor Steen Johannessen. Besides the opening night the film is screened 4 times during the CPH:DOX festival. See the program here.

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Sara Thelle
Sara Thelle
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