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Last Men in Aleppo

LAST MEN IN ALEPPO

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Feras Fayyad

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 5/3/17 (limited); 5/19/17 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 18, 2017

They stare at the sky. The distant but distinctive sound of a jet becomes louder. They can tell it's a Russian one because of the plane's color. There's a Syrian one flying above their city, too, although they've lost sight of it. It's only a matter of time before an attack begins.

During the time when Last Men in Aleppo is set, this is a daily occurrence for the people of Aleppo—the jets, the helicopters, the barrel bombs, the missiles. The attacks come without warning, because no advanced warning is possible or even necessary. The battle for the city—between Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government, as well as its allies, and various rebel forces—is near its end when the film starts at some point in 2015 and even closer by the time the film reaches its conclusion in 2016. The people who remain in Aleppo know that another missile strike or bombing run could come at any time. The sirens only seem to wail in the city after an attack.

There's no obvious military strategy behind these attacks. The aircraft target any building, especially residential ones. People in the streets after an attack, looking to see what devastation has arrived this time, are warned to disperse, because the planes and helicopters routinely have targeted any large gathering of people. The conclusion is that Assad's aim is not merely victory. It's a massacre of anyone and everyone who has the misfortune of living in what used to be his country's most populous city.

The man keeps coming up in the news, especially in reports that he has used chemical weapons. The argument of those who seem too quick to defend the man—for whatever twisted rationale they may have—is that such attacks would be strategically unwise. This argument has two fatal flaws: It assumes that Assad is wise and that he cares about strategy.

The simple answer is that he is a cold, uncaring leader who will do anything, including the outright destruction of Syria's largest city, to quell any threat to his power. He doesn't need to be insane to do that, either. History has plenty of examples of other men of power doing much worse with the same goal in mind.

The film is only indirectly about Assad and the civil war that has been raging in Syria since 2011, when the protests of the Arab Spring resulted in violent responses from the governments that were being protested against, as well as an influx into the wave of protests of other organizations with other, violent, and equally oppressive goals in mind. Director Feras Fayyad, a Syrian native, only provides the most basic background for the conflict. There is no explanation of the various national and political alliances. There is no statement, except the one that Assad and his allies have made against themselves, by doing what they have done and continue to do.

The primary subjects of the documentary aren't combatants. They're a voluntary group of first responders, who rush to the sites of attacks on missions of rescue and, more often, recovery. They call themselves Syria Civil Defence. Colloquially, they have become known as the White Helmets.

Fayyad follows these volunteers, chiefly Khaled and Mahmoud. Khaled is a husband and father, debating the idea of taking his family out of Aleppo and possibly Syria, even though such an escape seems impossible at the moment, given the fact that Turkey has rejected a group of refugees from crossing its border. Instead, the Turkish government gives them tents. Mahmoud was a student who had to quit school once the war began.

Despite Khaled's thoughts of leaving, it is clear that his heart isn't in the idea. This city is his home and always has been. That's the recurring statement from and attitude of all of these volunteers. None of them will leave. All of them have accepted the reality that they likely will die in this place.

The film moves between scenes of rescue and the volunteers on their downtime, often resulting in conversations about the same subjects (Sometimes it feels as if they have been prodded a bit into talking about certain things before a scene begins). There's a bit of repetitiveness to this, which is mostly understandable, since there is nothing else to discuss except their fate, the bombings, and the powerful men orchestrating these attacks.

Later, buildings run by the White Helmets become targets in a particularly brutal attack on basic human decency. It's not enough that Assad's military is killing people at random. They have to destroy the only chance of survival that the victims of these attacks have. A brief ceasefire gives the organization a chance to organize a field trip for children to a local playground (The adults partake in the playground equipment, too). The trip ends with a warning of a plane in the area.

The rescue and recovery efforts are, of course, harrowing and haunting. Fayyad does not move his camera from the rubble as the volunteers dig through it, spending entire days and nights with shoddy construction equipment hindering their efforts. The threat of another attack does not stop them, though. Survivors are found and rushed to ambulances. Bodies of the dead—mostly, from what we see, babies and young children—are carried and passed with as much respect as can be afforded under the circumstances. Severed limbs are collected in body bags for the purposes of identification.

This has become the White Helmets' routine. It's unfathomable from the comfort of living outside of this place, but Last Men in Aleppo tries to make us understand the reality.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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