Once Syria’s largest city, Aleppo is now a symbol of the steady, intractable horrors of that country’s civil war. In 2011, during the peak of the Arab Spring, an estimated 1.5 million of the city’s two million citizens gathered in Aleppo in support of President Bashar al-Assad; today, the city is a beleaguered rebel stronghold whose population has fallen to about a quarter of a million. Hundreds of thousands have died amid malnutrition and a steady string of barrel bombs, and even more have become refugees. These statistics help contextualize the immensity of the devastation of al-Assad’s Russian-assisted campaign against his own people, but they’re of minimal interest to Feras Fayyad, the director of the documentary Last Men in Aleppo, which plunges into a world that’s long given up any immediate hopes of rescue or recovery.
The film’s central figures are Khaled and Mahmoud, two members of the Syria Civil Defence, more popularly known as the White Helmets. The men are, essentially, first responders: Powerless to prevent attacks upon their home, they monitor the news for indications of impending strikes, and their primary training is in how to conduct rescue missions. Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar-winning documentary short The White Helmets offers some useful context about their work, but amid its ubiquitous heaps of concrete, Last Men in Aleppo has a more wrenchingly existential focus. Carnage and tragedy are a given, and some of the film’s early images are its most horrific, showing the White Helmets scavenging mounds of rubble in a search for survivors that’s notable for its calm and deliberation. This story isn’t an appeal for peace or a call for awareness, as it’s clearly too late for that.
As such, Khaled, like many of his peers, seems to spend most of his days looking at the skies. He’s examining jets and contrails, trying to determine where a given aircraft is heading and what weapons it might store, but his gaze is both pragmatic and watchful, wearied by the war that’s inexorably destroying his home. Mahmoud is more sensitive, concerned about working and potentially dying alongside his brother, a development that would devastate their parents, who’ve fled to Turkey and falsely believe their children have emigrated as well. Even as they consider whether they should leave, it’s evident that both Mahmoud and Khaled are committed to Aleppo, and Fayyad doesn’t interrogate their resolve so much as bear witness to it.
The Syrian-born director stays out of the film but close to his subjects. Save a few distant views of bombings and the odd swell of strings on the soundtrack, it’s only late in Last Men in Aleppo when Fayyad departs from his vérité approach, presenting a montage of desiccated neighborhoods that begins on the ground and gradually lifts to great heights. These are unnecessary, reasonable attempts to impose a sense of narrative onto a situation that is, in its best moments, a tenuous stalemate. Otherwise, the film is aesthetically distinctive. Fayyad eschews the aggressively crisp, bleached look of The White Helmets and other documentaries about Middle Eastern conflicts, resulting in images that are slightly burnished, appropriately reminiscent of newspaper photographs that have been left untouched for weeks.
The film moves with urgency in the thick of the immediate aftermath of bombings and one staggering missile attack, but it’s more broadly concerned with portraying Aleppo as a community of neighbors and colleagues. Fayyad keenly gets at the gravity of Khaled and Mahmoud’s attachment to their home. Like all of the White Helmets, the men are evidently heroes, discussed in the media and praised by their fellow citizens. The film’s most emotional scene depicts a visit Mahmoud makes to the family of a child he rescued: the boy, scarred and missing half of his hair, clings to Mahmoud and urges him to recount the story of his rescue; the boy’s father refuses to accept Mahmoud’s attempts to leave, plying him with coffee and urging him to stay longer.
If some of the people of Aleppo find sustenance honoring men like Mahmoud, he and Khaled long for prosaic days. They take children to a local playground, and buy fish for fountains in their yards, joking that they might one day be a necessary source of food. (The documentary’s opening shots show some of these fish in a murky bowl, trapped and sanguine.) This offhand, telling bit of gallows humor is emblematic of Last Men in Aleppo’s modesty, and its value: Hewing closely to a modest, observational mode, Fayyad dispenses with facts and figures in favor of acute emotional context.