- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Syrian documentary “Last Men in Aleppo,” which follows volunteers for the storied White Helmets rescue and recovery team, opens as they rush to the scene of a bombing. From the rubble of a collapsed building, they first pull out a toddler bleeding from the head.

They quickly work to free his siblings. The lifeless body of an infant is handed from volunteer to volunteer. Another child is recovered, dead. A final child, his arm sticking out from the gray rocks and dirt, gives a small jerk — he’s alive. The White Helmets free him.

The tragedy of civilians trapped among the fighting in Syria’s nearly 7-year-old civil war is recorded in stark detail by director Fares Fayyad, a Syrian native and opposition activist who spent three years on the ground in Aleppo closely following and intimately involved with his subjects.

“The focus is not about the [White Helmets] organization,” Mr. Fayyad said in a phone interview with The Washington Times. “It is about the daily life of the Syrian citizen who is living in the middle of the war.”

Mr. Fayyad was in Washington last week for a screening of the film at the Landmark E Street Cinema, a boutique theater specializing in showing independent, foreign language, documentary or classic revival films.



On Sunday, “Last Men in Aleppo” will contend for the Oscar for best documentary film at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony. Last year, the Netflix short documentary “The White Helmets” won the Oscar for best documentary short. The two films are not associated despite their similar subject matter.

Where “The White Helmets” focused on the organization as a whole, Mr. Fayyad said, his film puts a strong focus on the impact of the war on civilians and their struggle of whether to stay in Syria or flee.

“They find themselves in this dilemma between saving their society, doing something for their society or their personal [survival], to help their family and run from [this conflict],” Mr. Fayyad said. “This is dilemma and inner conflict — a common conflict with most of the Syrians.”

Filming began in 2013, two years after peaceful Syrian protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad were met with a violent crackdown. Over the years, the fight has morphed from a war between opposition forces and the government to multiple conflicts among international powers and Islamist terrorists.

From 2013 to 2016, Mr. Fayyad was in eastern Aleppo, which was under the control of rebel groups. Estimates of the population during that time range from as low as 30,000 to more than 300,000 according to the Atlantic Council. Apartments, schools and hospitals were fair targets for an enemy that would drop heavy munitions and barrel bombs filled with shrapnel, explosives and chemicals designed to maim and terrorize.

By the end of 2015, the Syrian Center for Policy Research estimated the death toll in the country to be 470,000. In December 2016, Aleppo fell mostly under the control of regime forces with the United Nations condemning both sides for war crimes.

“Last Men in Aleppo” follows two men — Mahmoud and Khaled — who volunteered with the White Helmets. Mahmoud is a young man concerned for the safety of his brother, who stayed with him in the city while their family fled to Turkey. Khaled is a father of two girls who struggles with whether to stay or go.

Constant confrontation with death wear down the men, but Khaled stands out for finding lightness whenever he can — a smile, a joke or a prank to improve the mood.

The camera captures the men saving lives, pulling people from rubble or alternately with the morbid task of collecting bodies and scattered limbs. At one point, Khaled recounts a story of tugging on something soft trapped under debris. Believing it to be a torso, he prepares himself for the worst before discovering it was a pillow.

“I was so scared!” he exclaims with relief.

The most poignant scenes show Khaled’s relationship with his daughters. He plays with them and showers them with affection. When he is away, he stares longingly into the phone, listening to their recorded messages and responding that he loves and misses them too.

The film ends with Khaled’s funeral: He was killed responding to a bomb strike.

While not overtly political, “Last Men in Aleppo” is told from the side under attack by bombs dropped from Syrian jets and their Russian allies. Mr. Fayyad said it serves as a testament to war crimes committed by these nations and as a stark reminder of the situation facing civilians today in eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb under siege by the regime; and Afrin, a Syrian-Kurdish enclave targeted by Turkey.

Syria and Turkey say their campaigns are to root out terrorists in their respective regions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in Ghouta, at least 500 civilians, including 150 children, have been killed by Syrian and Russian airstrikes over the past week.

In Afrin, at least 150 civilians have been killed and hundreds more injured since the start of the Turkish campaign at the end of January, said Human Rights Watch, citing the Kurdish Health Council.

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