Aleppo before the war
This is what victory looks like
LAST MEN IN ALEPPO (De sidste mænd i Aleppo) B+
Syria Netherlands Denmark (102 mi) 2017 director: Feras Fayyad
co-directors: Kareem Abeed, Mujahed Abou Al Joud, Fadi Al Halabi, Steen Johannessen, Hassan Kattan, Khaled Khateeb, Yaman Khatib, and Thaer Mohamad
We all die here together.
Arguably the best of a recent batch of Syrian documentaries, winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category at Sundance, and remarkable for the personal insights provided about retaining courage under fire. But if you want to imagine an even more dangerous world, imagine every time President Trump decided to tweet one of his cryptic messages that bombs would be dropped on various American cities that he deemed targets of dissent. That is essentially what has happened in Assad’s Syria, where for the last six years he’s been dropping barrel bombs out of helicopters on his own citizens, an aerial assault from which they are completely defenseless, as they have no ground-to-air weapons to protect themselves. The result has been a one-sided slaughter of Syrian citizens, where more than 400,000 have been killed, with one out of ten Syrians wounded or killed, yet according to BBC News reports only 1% of those killed have been rebel soldiers, as the rest are all civilians. While this is the root of the great refugee crisis that has paralyzed Europe, the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, with 11 million Syrian refugees exiting the country since the start of the civil war (2011). Feras Fayyad is a Syrian born journalist and filmmaker who was previously arrested and tortured after filming protesters tearing down a portrait of Assad, where he was suspected of being a Western spy, as are nearly all who study abroad, eventually released where he now lives safely in Denmark. Shot in the year beginning in September 2015, Fayyad was unable to enter Aleppo due to a four-year military siege where the city was essentially surrounded by Assad troops, but a four-man crew, including cinematographers Fadi al Halabi and Thaer Mohammed, also cameraman Mujahed Abou Al Joud (each named as co-directors), were already in place. Up until the second year of the civil war, Aleppo was still a world class city, the largest in Syria, with a history that reaches back five thousand years, one of the three oldest inhabited cities in human history (along with Damascus and Sana’a), added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1986, drawing visitors from all over the globe, where a mixture of Arabs and Turks, Armenians and French, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together peacefully. Abraham was said to have grazed his sheep on the hills of Aleppo, while Alexander the Great founded a settlement there. The city under the Biblical name of Aram Soba, or Halab in Arabic, considered an extended part of Israel, is mentioned in the Book of Samuel and Psalm 60, and was also at one end of the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road. The Citadel built in the 13th century remains one of the world’s oldest castles, offering Muslim protection against the Christian Crusaders, though it was heavily damaged in the Syrian bombing. Aleppo is even referred to in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth Act 1 Scene 3 - The Witches meet Macbeth, spoken by the First Witch, “Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger,” and again by Othello just before he stabs himself near the end of Act 5 Scene 2 (Othello: Act 5, Scene 2 - PlayShakespeare.com), when Aleppo was a Turkish city under the Ottoman Empire, the third largest after Constantinople and Cairo, recalling that in Aleppo he discovered a “malignant Turk” beating a Venetian, with Othello saving the Venetian by killing the Turk, who he describes as a “circumcised dog,” though striking a Turk in Aleppo was punishable by death. To the British, Aleppo at that time would be considered a faraway and mysterious place, a place where English merchants purchased what are today thoroughbred racehorses.
What’s most striking about this film is that it takes place entirely within a deteriorating war zone, a place already reduced to devastation and ruin, with people living in the surviving rubble, continually clearing away the debris, where we follow a group of voluntary emergency workers known as the White Helmets whose aim is to work together to save lives as they race to every bomb site, putting out fires, tending to the dead and wounded, sending survivors off to hospitals, while poking around the wreckage and digging through the debris searching for more bodies. As we see them pull babies and young children from the fallen debris, using jackhammers and axes to cut and pull away heavy concrete stones obstructing their path, it’s clear most that are found are already dead, where they rejoice at every live body discovered. This is the most hazardous work imaginable, placing themselves at the center of the biggest human disasters, where their work involves precariously placing themselves teetering on the edge of damaged buildings already on the verge of collapse, where they constantly come face-to-face with death while continually placing themselves in harm’s way. While not part of the film, the White Helmets are the subject of great controversy, as they are the target of a disinformation campaign led by Assad supporters and Russia sponsored propaganda outlets, including inflammatory claims of links with terrorist activities. To see this, one need look no further than the Roger Ebert film website, Last Men in Aleppo Movie Review (2017) | Roger Ebert, where in the Comments section there are deriding remarks from Norman Brown, Daniel Carrapa, Helga Fellay, and AllWormsMust Die, suggesting the film is promoting fake news, calling the actions of the White Helmets utter fiction, where the gist of it is “The White Helmets are a UK and USA created and funded group hired to film propaganda videos. The videos I have seen are completely faked and staged.” In support of their view, they site what appears to be a news website from Global Research (http://www.globalresearch.ca/forget-oscar-give-the-white-helmets-the-leni-riefenstahl-award-for-best-war-propaganda-film/5577778), with a glaring headline, “Forget Oscar: Give The White Helmets the Leni Riefenstahl Award for Best War Propaganda Film.” On further review, it is the Global Research Center (Global Research - Centre for Research on Globalization) that is promulgating the fake news, as they are part of the Putin propaganda arm designed to undermine Western democracies by slandering and destabilizing accurate news coverage that runs counter to their aims, where at one website (How legitimate is The Centre for Global Research? - Quora), a flow chart reveals Global Research’s place in the Putin hierarchy. In addition, the fact-checking organization Snopes.com has thoroughly debunked these outrageous claims undermining the White Helmets (Syrian Rescue Organization 'The White Helmets' Are ... - Snopes.com), but to put it bluntly, one can’t be anything less than flabbergasted to see these kinds of comments appear on a mainstream film website known for reviewing movie releases, usually discussing Woody Allen and the like, hardly a political entity. But the shocking reality is the full extent of Putin’s reach, as you can find examples of it almost anywhere, yet it all appears so innocuous. Needless to say, the White Helmets are a humanitarian relief organization committed to aiding victims of continued Syrian and Russian air attacks, men who are wholly devoted to preserving human life, and were among those nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize (eventually awarded to Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia), continually placing themselves on the front lines, where as of October of 2016 from The Independent (Syria conflict: The Nobel Peace Prize-nominated White Helmets ..., check out the scathingly negative comments there as well), they have pulled 62,000 people alive from decimated, bombed-out buildings, often with aerial attacks still going on, while out of 3,000 volunteers who have joined up in the past three years, 145 have been killed and another 430 have been injured.
While the visual destruction on display is overwhelming, comparable to Stalingrad or the Warsaw Ghetto, with Mahleresque symphonic music written by Danish composer Karsten Fundal that feels entirely appropriate, where the escalating air strikes were only intensified in the past year, the focus of the film follows two members of the White Helmets, Khaled Omar Harrah, one of the founders, a former painter and decorator who is married with two young daughters, and Mahmoud, a young single man and a former philosophy student at a university working with his younger brother Ahmad who joins him on his rounds. The men are not rebel soldiers, but had normal jobs before the Assad siege. “The dilemma is our children,” insists Khaled, constantly searching the sky for warplanes overhead, who could easily pass as a Fassbinder look-alike, pudgy, yet gregarious, outgoing, and friendly, with a broad smile, where it’s nearly impossible not to like this guy. Mahmoud, on the other hand, is quieter, more introspective, as he mostly keeps to himself, remaining terrified that something will happen to his younger brother Ahmad, feeling responsible for his safety, yet both are integral parts of the rescue team. Similar to a war correspondent on the scene, compiling a dossier of time-capsules, the camera bears witness to the harrowing events, where Khaled is a hero to his admiring children as they see footage of him pulling a living baby from out underneath the rubble. In calmer moments, we see he is never happier than when his girls are around, doting on them both, cherishing the time they spend together and Skyping them when he’s away, a striking contrast to his life in the White Helmets where death is his constant companion. The prevailing mood here is one of utter exhaustion, as they perform a Sisyphean duty that never ends, as the bombings never stop, the devastation is all around them, where they are continually racing against time, yet one of the unique strengths of the film is how vividly developed their characters become in front of the camera, refusing to be deterred, lifting up each other’s sagging spirits, even finding humor in the absurdity of it all, but these guys are constantly thrust into the eye of the storm. Mahmoud is quietly modest, seen talking to a young boy that he pulled from the ashes, encouraging him to make something of his life, while he wants no adulation for himself, increasingly uncomfortable that the boy can’t stop clinging to him. “I didn’t like that,” he tells Khaled, “I’m not going to visit anyone again because I feel like this is showing off, showing these people that I saved their lives and I’m not like that.” Dedicated to the core, Mahmoud’s anxiety is directed towards his younger brother, confessing that his parents still think they are both living comfortably with jobs in Turkey, as he can’t bear to tell them the truth. Normally, we see an overly concerned Khaled tell his kids not to play in the streets, or hang out in groups, as they make themselves a visible target. When a temporary ceasefire is declared, he euphorically drives them to a public park, where kids of all ages have gathered to play on the swings and slides, with parents finally smiling from the relief, where it feels like an oasis in the desert. But it’s not long before loudspeakers announce helicopter sightings, urging people to quickly disperse. While there is footage of jubilant street demonstrations mocking Assad, calling him a murderer, condemning him for crimes against humanity, the White Helmets don’t usually spend their time discussing religion or politics, instead they wonder where is the response from the West? “All dignity is dead.” “Why don’t our Arab neighbors help us?” “Where is the world, man?” “Shame on the Arab leaders. Just shame.” The mood only grows more dire, with shocking footage of a large-scale Russian bombing attack, where any thought of hope is actually a false illusion, instead turning pensive and more contemplative, speaking of their own mortality, expecting to die defending their city. Ignoring facts and figures, which tell only one side of the story, this is an extraordinary portrait of humanity among the ruins, accentuating the inner lives of the participants, as we share acute moments of intimacy with them, where it’s all the more tragic how it comes to an abrupt end, as there’s simply no good way to face the city’s ultimate destiny, where by Christmas the city falls, retaken by Syrian forces, with the aid of an extensive Russian bombing campaign that killed three times the number of Syrian civilians than ISIS fighters, where one can only imagine what defeat feels like to these men who fought so valiantly for their families to remain free from dictatorship while struggling to preserve the last remnants of their city and culture, now already a distant memory.
Aleppo Before the War - The Atlantic photographic essay of Aleppo before and after the war, by Alan Taylor from The Atlantic, December 21, 2016