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Sunday, February 18, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Last Men in Aleppo (2017)

History, sadly, has a tendency to repeat itself. Last year at the Academy Awards, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi – whose film, “The Salesman,” ultimately won the Best Foreign Language Film prize – was not able to attend the ceremony due to President Trump's travel ban. A year later, something very similar is playing out in another category. Feras Fayyad and the rest of the team behind “Last Men in Aleppo,” one of the Best Documentary nominees, will not be able to attend the ceremony due to another one of the President's executive orders, restricting and banning travel from a more-or-less random selection of countries. This is neither the time nor the place to get into why this sucks but I'll just say that it's a shame that the filmmakers behind this motion picture will not be able to attend the ceremony celebrating their extraordinary film.

Since 2011, Syria has been torn apart by civil war. The simplest version is: Civilian opposition to tyrannical president Bashar al-Assad has led to in-fighting among the Syrians. Air raids and bombings by the Syrian government and its allies, primarily Russia, frequently occur on cities deemed as centers for the opposition. “Last Men in Aleppo” focuses on the White Helmets, a citizen-run search-and-rescue organization. The film focuses on three men – family man Khaled Omar Harrah and brothers Subhi and Mahmoud Alhussen – as they put their own lives in danger every day to rescue people, pulling them out of the wreckage of their own homes.

Feras Fayyad and his team put their cameras down on the ground, in the war zone. This approach lends “Last Me in Aleppo” an immediate feeling. The cameras capture life as it happens. We see White Helmet workers unwind between rescue missions. They play soccer, eat, and sing songs. A lot of time is focused on Khaled spending time with his kids, playing and talking with them. (One especially effective moment shows him sitting in a pitch black room, listening to a cellphone message from his daughters.) He also loved his pet fish, so the film spends some time showing how he procure and cared for his pets. Scenes like this provide context to Khaled and the other's acts of heroism. These are ordinary men, not larger than life figures.

This direct approach to its subject also lends “Last Men in Aleppo” a startling immediacy. One moment shows the Alhussen brothers approaching a burning car, only for an explosion to occur immediately afterwards. We see the camera men, also putting their lives in danger, try and flee to safety with the others. The directors do not turn their cameras away from the hard realities of this story. There are multiple scenes of people, children especially, being pulled from the pulverized wreckage of their own homes. “Last Men in Aleppo” shows several victories, of people being rescued alive. But this is not as common as the sad truth. The White Helmets often have to clean up body parts and remains. Families are broken, illustrated in a scene where a mourning father weeps and curses Bashar. Homes are destroyed, shown in a moment where a drone-mounted camera hovers around the completely wrecked buildings.

“Last Men in Aleppo” does not focus on the political side of the Syrian conflict. (And it pointedly does not acknowledge the rumors manufactured by Russian propaganda that the White Helmets are associated with terrorist organizations.) However, the people interviewed in the doc do sometimes raise an important question: Why do people choose to live in a war zone? Many of the White Helmets, such as the  do it out a sense of duty to their families and countrymen. Some seem like they just want to help people. Khaled Harrah, like many of the White Helmets, ultimately gave his life to this mission. The film concludes with sudden, stark footage of his funeral, followed by statistics on the on-going violence in Syria.

Movies like “Last Men in Aleppo” are not easy to watch. It puts the audience right in the middle of a bloody, intense conflict. It shows the aftermath of that violence without flinching much. Stark reminders like this are needed. Yet tales of heroes, like Khaled Harrah and his fellow White Helmets, are also sorely needed. It's fitting that some of the most touching moments in “Last Men in Aleppo” show us the man in his everyday life, as a human being that was loved by his friends and family. It's a difficult but deeply affecting motion picture. [8/10]

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