Last weekend, instead of catching a horror movie about the Winchester Mystery House, I streamed a searing cinematic record of real horrors. A 2018 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, Last Men in Aleppo (currently streaming on iTunes and Netflix) is not an easy film to forget or ignore.
Syrian filmmaker Firas Fayyad shot the doc in 2015 to '16, when his hometown was under relentless aerial bombardment from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. It follows members of the Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets, who have devoted themselves to the grim task of digging their compatriots out of the resulting rubble.
In an early scene, we watch as children — two alive, one dead — emerge from the wreckage. Only one ultimately survives to thank his rescuers, in a scene that tells us a lot about the film's two White Helmet protagonists, former philosophy student Mahmoud and family man Khaled.
In this landscape of death and devastation, Mahmoud confesses that he feels uncomfortable receiving a hero's welcome. For his part, Khaled clearly sees likenesses of his two young children in the one he's managed to save. An earthy, sympathetic figure who plays soccer and horses around with his kids, he repeatedly balks at the prospect of fleeing with them to the safety of Turkey. "I was born and raised here," he says. "Should I leave it to some stranger?"
There are no talking heads here, no elucidation of the intricacies of the civil war or the politics of these particular Syrians. But Khaled's words instantly conjure up a scenario familiar to us from war films and westerns: the last stand.
Last Men is not an easy film to watch, conveying the grinding routine of living in a city under near-constant attack. Having embedded themselves with the White Helmets, Fayyad and his cinematographer stick to their perspective, taking us to one first-response scenario after another. At every site, "Get the body bag" is the refrain. While the carnage generally stays off-camera, the matter-of-fact way the rescuers deal with it speaks volumes.
It's almost a relief when Fayyad briefly yields to an arty impulse, offering a montage of drone shots of the pulverized city. A surreal tableau of a colorful fish tank, perched in an apartment without a front wall, echoes an earlier motif: Khaled stocks a fountain with fish as a contingency food source.
That's a moment of peaceful normalcy but also an emblem of the characters' own entrapment. The film ends before December 2016, when Assad's forces took full control of Aleppo and brought the rebels' last stand there to an end.
Since the White Helmets became an international cause célèbre, parties on both the right and the left have mounted campaigns to depict the group as political pawns rather than disinterested saviors. But, if Last Men is indeed propaganda, it's less effective at pushing an agenda than at simply getting our rapt, horrified attention. Nihilism and despair are recurring themes in the rescuers' conversations: "The whole world is against us," one says near the end. "They're all united in killing people here."
The documentary may not offer us much enlightenment on the reasons for that killing, but it's powerful enough to make us seek out the facts. They aren't encouraging. In a December 2016 report, journalist Robin Wright wrote in the New Yorker, "There will be little of Syria left, physically, for its people to return to." Fayyad's powerful film puts names and faces to that destruction.