De sidste mænd i Aleppo [DK 2017]

International title: Last Men in Aleppo

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

De sidste mænd i Aleppo is a documentary about the civil war in Syria and its effect on the people who live in the capital city, Aleppo. The Danish-Syrian co-production, which was nominated for an Academy Award (“Best Documentary Feature”), focuses on a group of civilians, i.e. the Syrian Civil Defense or White Helmets, and their daily struggle to help people after air strikes and car bombs. The documentary follows Khaled, Mahmoud, and Subhi, three young men who live in Aleppo and volunteer to save the local people. However, the consequences of the conflict, i.e. the lack of humanitarian intervention and the reckless criminal regime in Syria, resulting in thousands of war refugees fleeing the country, are also in part discussed.

WHAT I LIKE

The documentary features no typical interviews or expansive voice-overs, however, the political conflict is briefly explained in the beginning. The feature follows the White Helmets on their daily routine, e.g. getting medicine at the pharmacy or recovering people from the rubble of a destroyed building. In dialogues with other people, the extreme situation becomes clear: there is a lack of medical supplies, children are malnourished, equipment is old or broken, and buildings are regularly hit by air strikes. The images of the war-torn city are excruciating and effectively show the dilemma of the people whether to stay or leave the country. Although the viewer frequently sees the aftermath of explosions, the camera never shows gratuitous violence or gore (e.g., injuries and torn limbs) – the main subject of the documentary are always the men who work at the destroyed buildings. Overall, most scenes are heartbreaking and frustrating to watch, like the scenes where the men rely on black humor to cope with the situation, and especially the ending. Considering its topic, the documentary is extremely important, even if it’s no easy watch.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Still, there are some technical issues with regard to the footage used. The handheld camera has a poor quality at times, like overexposed highlights or strong artefacts when the surroundings get darker. Also, the documentary doesn’t present a comprehensive account of the White Helmets, as it never explains their organizational structure and only follows a limited amount of people on their daily routines. As there are never any interviews or more information about when the events happened, the viewer is somewhat left in the dark regarding the political debates of the men. This is also because of the editing quality, which sometimes lacks a proper distinction between the different scenes/settings.

THE VERDICT

De sidste mænd i Aleppo (international title: Last Men in Aleppo) is a documentary about the White Helmets, a voluntary nonprofessional organization in Syria that has been helping people after bomb attacks since the civil war started in 2013. The documentary features footage that was shot between 2013 and 2017 and mostly focuses on three young men and their dilemma whether to stay or leave Aleppo. There is few information provided and no additional material was used (like interviews or external media coverage), which is why the documentary feels authentic but also raw. The conflict in Syria is a contemporary geopolitical crisis and, thus, the documentary is topical, important, and although few scenes actually contain graphic violence or gore, the catastrophe feels personal and heart-breaking. Although there are some technical drawbacks (e.g., structure and editing), the subject matter is simply too important to disregard.

Overall 7/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – Other documentaries about the Syrian civil war from writer/co-director Feras Fayyad are The Cave [2019] about the dangerous mission of female doctors and One Day in Aleppo [2017] about a group of children living in the war-torn city.

 – Khaled Umar Harrah, the main volunteer of the White Helmets in the documentary, died before the film was finished. Fayyad decided to include his funeral in his movie.

 – This film consists of material shot in Aleppo and Idlib between 2013 and 2017. The resulting documentary represents how Fayyed and his cinematography team from Aleppo Media Center experienced the conflict and how people dealt with daily life.

 – In the wake of it being nominated for an Academy Award, the documentary was heavily criticized as US propaganda. Journalists of The Guardian found that this information mostly came from Russian news broadcasts.

 – In an interview, Fayyad listed the ten movies that influenced his documentary the most: City Lights [1931], A Clockwork Orange [1971], Gates of Heaven [1978], Mamma Roma [1962], Nanook of the North [1922], The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928], Rome, Open City [1946], The Sacrifice [1986], Seven Samurai [1954], and Tokyo Story [1953].

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