Syria’s brutal civil war does not lack for villains—President Bashar al-Assad, for example, who according to the UN, has blistered his people with chemical weapons. Or Russian President Vladimir Putin—many would argue—whose warplanes have obliterated countless Syrian civilians.
But the conflict has produced valiant figures too, none more so than the White Helmets—volunteer civil defense workers who rush in to try to save the missing and the injured after the relentless bombing campaigns.
A group of White Helmets forms the core— or corps, if you prefer— of Last Men in Aleppo, the powerful film from Syrian director Firas Fayyad, which won the top prize for international documentary at Sundance and has qualified for Oscar consideration.
The film captures the men at multiple bombing sites, using backhoes, pick axes and their bare hands in a desperate quest to free survivors.
“They [improvise], come up with solutions to rescue the people around them, the people they know, the people of their city, their neighbors,” Fayyad tells Deadline.
Their motives are altruistic, yet to mythologize these first responders as some kind of supermen distorts the picture, Fayyad believes.
“Many of the characters tell me, ‘We are not heroes. We don’t like this idea.’ And all the time, the media pushes this idea,” the director insists. “That makes people think, ‘Okay, there is a hero. [Syrians] are in safe hands. Just support these people and everything will be okay.’”
Fayyad foregrounds two men, both in their 20s: Mahmoud, a philosophy student who left university to dedicate himself to the White Helmets, and Khaled, who might be called the main character—a charismatic father of two.
“With Khaled, every child he tried to rescue, he saw a picture of his two daughters. It’s super personal,” Fayyad observes. “Many times he rescued children that are studying in the same school as his daughters, children in the same neighborhood.”
Mahmoud wrestles with whether to compel his younger brother Ahmed—who also serves with the White Helmets—to seek relative safety in Turkey. For Khaled too, the question of whether to flee the country with his family, leaving behind his fellow Syrians in dire need, presents a crushing dilemma.
“We [took] a long time to find these two characters that reflect not just the Syrians, but all people around the world,” Fayyad notes. “Could be me, could be you, could be anyone with these two different choices”—to stay, or to leave.
The film centers on the period between 2015 and 2016 when the application of Russian military might began to tip the battle for Aleppo in Assad’s favor. Random bombing runs imperiled all the city’s residents, but the White Helmets faced a specific threat, Fayyad says—from Russian armaments fired at them directly. The director maintains Russian forces had a clear motive for attacking the White Helmets, because they were in a position to document Russian complicity in the slaughter of civilians.
“The White Helmets are the first responders after bombings, so they collect evidence of war crimes… The Russians were angry with them,” Fayyad insists. “They start to attack their centers where the White Helmets are and kill them.”
He says the Russians also orchestrated a disinformation campaign to try to discredit the work of the White Helmets.
“They call them a terrorist group, American CIA [spies], to motivate the community around the world to think about them like they are part of intelligence services,” Fayyad says. “It’s a propaganda war that the Russians use, [a tactic] from the Cold War.”
Last Men in Aleppo gives a visceral sense of life in a decimated landscape, punctuated by the strange beauty of ordnance cascading across a night sky. Fayyad also shows lighter moments that interrupt the explosive action, as when the men celebrate at a friend’s wedding, or kick around a soccer ball.
“I try to put the camera in the street of the city, through the perspective and the eyes of the characters. I tried to make kind of a journey through their eyes,” he explains, “how they maintain their hope… what motivates them to do their work.”
Fayyad and his small crew were exposed to the same risks as the first responders. However, the director is resolute about keeping the attention not on himself or his cinematographer, but on the White Helmets.
“We weren’t thinking about ourselves, but we were scared, of course. We are human. We are not machines,” he concedes. “Your mission as a filmmaker in documentary or fiction, is not to be like the hero. Your mission is to be a storyteller.”
The story he told recently earned a nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Filmmaking from the Cinema Eye Honors, making a list of six films that includes Matthew Heinemann’s City of Ghosts, another documentary about Syria’s civil war.
This year has brought two other acclaimed films on the Syrian conflict—Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS directed by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, and Cries from Syria, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.
Fayyad welcomes the cinematic focus on his homeland.
“The films on Syria will not end this year… There are a thousand subjects and stories [to be told],” he observes. “Every filmmaker has his way and his tools to tell his story. As a Syrian, it’s good to see these movies [put] a spotlight on justice.”
The version of Last Men in Aleppo that played in theaters earlier this year measured 104 minutes. An 88-minute version is currently streaming on Netflix.