LAST MEN IN ALEPPO

★★★★★

A HEARTBREAKING, UNMISSABLE DOCUMENTARY

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Charlie David Page
13th June 2017

It's so easy to gloss over the situation in Syria. For someone so disconnected from the situation it’s overwhelming, both in terms of the scale of devastation and the loss of life. Those caught in the middle of the warfare have no choice, used as pawns by their government and targets by enemies. 'The brilliant documentary 'Last Man In Aleppo' attempts to humanise the conflict, by showing the faces of the victims, as well as highlighting the men who provide a light in a sombre city.

The White Helmets have become an institution in Syria and around the world, a symbol of the resilience of the people. They’re volunteer rescuers who assemble as recovery teams whenever air raids occur, which is frequently, particularly in the city of Aleppo. For their persistence, they have been targeted, with over 159 White Helmets killed since the organisation's inception at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. Still, this doesn’t stop their selfless dedication and tireless work.

It’s not at all long before we’re thrown in the deep end with the reality of the situation. Just minutes into the film, moments after we’re introduced to the team, we’re racing full-speed through narrow city streets to the site of an air attack. They launch from the vehicle and start work immediately, clearing the public, grabbing rubble and shifting it with brute force, digging for anyone still alive. As is so often the reality, bodies are removed from the rubble - small children, their lifeless forms like rag dolls. It’s then the true impact of the situation dawns on you: this happens every day to this community, if not multiple times. Loss is so frequent, but that makes it no less devastating. Still, luck is on their side, and a small boy is pulled from the wreckage alive.

'LAST MEN IN ALEPPO' TRAILER

Five years into the siege, Aleppo is a horrific mess. Entire blocks of buildings have been razed, residents constantly watch the skies, and supplies are scarce. Yet life continues as normally as possible around the destruction: people still go to work, couples are married, children play in the streets. Some families leave the chaos and head for Turkey, who refuse them entry, and a refugee camp grows daily on the border. The resilient - a substantial group - refuse to leave their home town, partly holding firm to the hope of peace, partly knowing they have nowhere else to go. They protest against Bashar al-Assad, and fill the streets chanting for the fall of his government.

We accompany the White Helmets on so many rescue missions - more than I care to count, yet without the impact of the carnage diminishing. We see the physical and mental effect the work has on the members, yet their reaction to these regular disasters is so focused and efficient. Over the substantial timespan of the documentary, we see the number of residents in Aleppo dwindle, both from casualties and the chance of escape, but still the White Helmets remain unyielding, ready to help rescue the trapped, clear the rubble, and bury the dead.

Five years into the siege, Aleppo is a horrific mess. Entire blocks of buildings have been razed, residents constantly watch the skies, and supplies are scarce. The resilient refuse to leave their home town, partly holding firm to the hope of peace, partly knowing they have nowhere else to go.

In one scene, we follow Mahmoud, the White Helmet who rescued the young boy from the very first attack we witness. He visits the family of the boy, who's now out of hospital and recovered. The family are endlessly grateful, and the boy himself immediately attaches himself to Mahmoud, wanting to know all the details of his rescue. Mahmoud is clearly uncomfortable with the situation, and has to insist on his departure; outside, he says the attention wrongly makes him feel like a hero. His intention was to find out more about those family members who had lost their lives that day.

Another White Helmets volunteer, Khaled, is so dedicated to his city, yet torn by the safety of his family. He worries for his wife and children, with one daughter suffering from malnourishment due to a lack of supplies. He and his White Helmet friends help rebuild a devastated courtyard, and fill the small pond with fish. Khaled surmises the similarity he has to the fish - if they leave the water, they will die, as will he if he leaves Aleppo. Inevitably, he must send his family away for their safety, but stays for the safety of others.


The effect of ‘Last Men In Aleppo’ is hugely affecting - the death and destruction, along with the number of close calls witnessed, is wholly heartbreaking. Yet the strength and perseverance of the people of Aleppo is astonishing - being battered by air assaults day after day has destroyed their city, but not their spirit. More wonderful still are the White Helmets, whose compassion and sacrifice has saved countless lives. These are the most beautiful people in the world - unflinching in the face of danger, steadfast in their efforts, aiding until their last breath; here are your true superheroes.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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