Finding art in the rubble in Oscar-nominated ‘Last Men in Aleppo’

"I was born and raised here. Should I leave it to some stranger?”

"Last Men in Aleppo." CREDIT: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
"Last Men in Aleppo." CREDIT: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s a totally normal 75-degree day in February when Feras Fayyad, director of Oscar-nominated documentary Last Men in Aleppo, arrives at the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row.

“It’s just the climate change,” he says, adding, in a sing-songy voice, “It’s so good! We’re good. I don’t care about climate change or global warming.”

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It’s a touch of the sense of humor — a game, dark laugh at the impending apocalypse — that buoyed Fayyad during the years he spent filming Last Men in Aleppo, for which he followed the Syrian Civil Defense Force (also known as the White Helmets) a volunteer corps of first responders whose home city is leveled, day in and day out, by Russian-backed airstrikes supporting Bashir al-Assad’s regime. Since the White Helmets were founded in 2013, they have saved nearly 100,000 lives. In 2016, they were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Last Men in Aleppo is up for best documentary feature, and Fayyad is the first Syrian to be nominated for an Oscar. But Fayyad’s excitement over his film’s big moment is tempered by disenchantment. At the time of our meeting, Fayyad was still fretting over the fate of his producer, Kareem Abeed, as well one of his main subjects, White Helmets co-founder Mahmoud Al-Hattar, neither of whom were able to attend the ceremony and share in the celebration. Al-Hattar was unable to get a passport from Syria. Abeed, who is Syrian but resides in Turkey, was caught up in President Trump’s Muslim travel ban; his visa to enter the United States was denied. (A week after this interview took place, Abeed successfully appealed his case to the U.S. State Department, was granted a visa, and will be able to go to the Oscars after all. Fayyad tweeted his gratitude.)

“I was born and raised here. Should I leave it to some stranger?”

Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported, the Russian media has portrayed Fayyad as “a Western-funded propagandist whose film is a thinly disguised ‘Al-Qaeda promotional vehicle,'” Russia Insider alleges that Last Men in Aleppo‘s Oscar nomination proves “the Hollywood celebrity industry is now an integral part of the U.S. state’s propaganda machine.” In response, the International Documentary Association issued a statement defending Fayyad and his film against the “sustained and withering online disinformation attack from a legion of Russian, pro-Russian and pro-Assad trolls.”

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“Artists throughout history are often the first casualties in their missions to challenge us to be bolder and better,” they write, “They are more than deserving of our gratitude and support.”

Mahmoud Al-Hattar in "Last Men in Aleppo." CREDIT: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
Mahmoud Al-Hattar in "Last Men in Aleppo." CREDIT: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

This seems to disappoint, but not really rattle, Fayyad, who spent almost two years embedded with the White Helmets to make his documentary and, while working on a different project back in 2011, was arrested by the Syrian government and tortured. “It’s very, very sad,” he says, to see both the travel ban and the Russian smear campaign. “What it is, is, it’s against the freedom of expression.”

The film has been championed by critics from the jump; it won a grand jury prize at its Sundance premiere last year. “It’s one of the best things that any artist dreams about,” Fayyad says of Last Men‘s reception. “You can use your art as a platform to use those voices for people who have no voices, and then you can make a change. You feel like, the justice exists here. It surrounds you. You feel like you can make it. When you have people who believe in human values, you feel safe. We don’t need the safety from the authorities or government.”

By the time the Last Men in Aleppo begins, the city as its citizens once knew it is virtually gone, and in its place are chunks of concrete, rock, and ash. Everything seems to be covered with a layer of pale dust.

For audiences inured to slick, showy violence of the Marvel superhero variety, the matter-of-fact devastation that unfolds in Last Men in Aleppo is so graphic and sickening as to be almost unwatchable. White Helmets pull bloodied babies out of the rubble. Dead children are excavated from heaps of debris. A man is rushed to the hospital while his leg, severed from its owner, rots in the street, its exact location unknown. “Watch out for torn limbs,” one White Helmet calls out as he tosses a dismembered foot down from a ledge.

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Beyond the body horror, Last Men in Aleppo captures the banal redundancy of violence, the repetitive rhythm of a city under siege. Halfway through you start to feel like you are watching the same thing happen over and over with only minimally different outcomes — which, in a way, you are.

“It was not easy for me to get this access,” Fayyad said. “It’s easy if you’re filming for 10 days, a couple of days. But we’re talking about filming with them for years. Living with them, following them to their personal space, when they sleep, when they get angry, when they play, the feeling of the responsibility and the dreams.” It took six months of “just talking, observing them” before Fayyad’s subjects agreed to be filmed.

While making his film, Fayyad labored to be as unobtrusive as possible. “I don’t want to push them,” Fayyad says. “No interviews, no voiceovers. I don’t want to build the drama. I want the drama to happen.”

The result is a movie that “shows what [the White Helmets] want, what they dream, what they fight for, and the crimes that happen around them, which is part of the corruption of the international community and the crimes of the Russians.”

“The story is through their eyes,” he says. “And I want the audience to observe with them, to see the beauty side of the war and the ugly side of the war.”

5-year-old wounded Syrian kid Omran Daqneesh sits alone in the back of the ambulance after he got injured on August 17, 2016. CREDIT: Mahmud Rslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
5-year-old wounded Syrian kid Omran Daqneesh sits alone in the back of the ambulance after he got injured on August 17, 2016. CREDIT: Mahmud Rslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The ugly side is surely the side audiences know best. The image that people most readily associate with Aleppo is likely that of Omran Daqneesh, taken moments after he’d been rescued from the pile of debris where his house once stood, before it was demolished by an airstrike. In the photograph, the five-year-old boy sits in the back of an ambulance, staring blankly ahead. His body is covered in a layer of grime; the left side of his face is caked with blood. His legs are so short that his knees don’t bend over the end of his pylon-colored seat. Instead his feet stick straight up, little toes to the sky.

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The photo made front pages all over the world. But Fayyad’s film shows that there are more children like Omran than there are front pages on which to put them.

Of the two men Fayyad documented most closely, only one is still alive. Khaled Omar Harrah, who was a painter and decorator before the war broke out, became one of the White Helmet’s most recognizable members in 2014, when his rescue of a 10-day-old baby from a collapsed building was caught on video. Khaled found the “miracle baby” 16 hours after the rescue operation began. He was killed in an airstrike in August 2016 at the age of 31, leaving behind his wife and two young daughters. He was one of six White Helmets who died during Fayyad’s shoot.

But Last Men in Aleppo also gets at how the desperate, destructive scenes are spliced with glimmers of regular life, even grace: Pickup soccer games, jaunts to a playground, the improbable acquisition of some pet fish. Mundane desires — of children to play outside, of lovers to get married — coexist with wartime urgencies.

Fayyad started off with a question: Why did the White Helmets volunteer? “I want to understand [what’s] behind their decision,” he said. “To understand the daily life, and what makes them scared, and where they find the hope. As a filmmaker, where is this hope with all the ugly that happens around you?”

“When you have people who believe in human values, you feel safe. We don’t need the safety from the authorities or government.”

Amid all the bombing, he asks, “Where is the humanity? Where is the justice? It’s bigger than any human could handle.”

And as he dug into that question, it became important to figure out “how we can make this film in a way that bring what they witness and what they feel and not introduce them as heroes and not introduce them as victims, because they were sensitive about that,” Fayyad said. “They don’t want to be heroes. This is a sensitive subject. Just people.”

Khaled Omar Harrah with his daughters in "Last Men in Aleppo." CREDIT: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.
Khaled Omar Harrah with his daughters in "Last Men in Aleppo." CREDIT: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

“I wanted to see what the effect was on them. Because we’re talking about fathers, brothers. I wanted to bring this impact of the war over the Syrian families and society,” Fayyad said. “Every child Khaled tried to save reminded him of his two daughters. Just imagine the guys who are doing that every day, a couple of times… They are building a life through the destructions… Every child is like his child, and every child reminds him of his childhood.”

For Fayyad’s subjects, there is nowhere to stay and there is nowhere to go. Over and over again, these men wonder aloud if it would be better to send their families to a safer place, if such a safer place exists, if their children would be accepted or shunned upon arrival, or if maybe it is better to just be together, even in what remains of Aleppo. Fight, flight.

“I’d rather they die before my eyes than have something happen to them far away,” Khaled says at one point. Later, he says of Aleppo, “I was born and raised here. Should I leave it to some stranger?”

Feras Fayyad arrives at The BAFTA Los Angeles Tea Party at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on January 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  CREDIT: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Feras Fayyad arrives at The BAFTA Los Angeles Tea Party at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on January 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. CREDIT: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

“I show in this film, these are people, they don’t want to send their children [away]. And they don’t want to be in another place,” Fayyad says. “These are people who believe that this is their home and they have to do something to change this place,” something he believes isn’t represented fully in media coverage of Syrian refugees. He is especially incensed by stories “that accuse refugees of traveling to other countries, who bring their children there, for nothing.”

“The resistance of the people against the power, this is the most surprising thing,” he says. “People don’t have anything, nothing. They have just their freedom and the human body… and they want to stay.”

In spite of Russian electoral interference — not that Americans would know anything about that — Last Men in Aleppo could get an Oscars boost from the attention surrounding the controversy about Al-Hattar’s inability to enter the country for the ceremony. Last year, a film on the same subject, White Helmets, took home best documentary short.

If the stir around the Muslim travel ban colliding with the Academy Awards sounds familiar, it’s because the same issue cast a pall over last year’s awards season as well. In 2017, all of the nominees for best foreign language film banded together to issue a statement decrying “the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the U.S. and in so many other countries” and dedicating the award, no matter the victor, “to all the people, artists, journalists and activists who are working to foster unity and understanding, and who uphold freedom of expression and human dignity.”

“We’re talking about filming with them for years. Living with them, following them to their personal space, when they sleep, when they get angry, when they play, the feeling of the responsibility and the dreams.”

Khaleb Kateeb, cinematographer on White Helmets, and Asghar Farhadi, Iranian writer and director of The Salesman, which won best foreign language film, were barred from entering the U.S. and did not attend the Oscars. Farhadi, who won best foreign language film and best original screenplay in 2012 for A Separation, had an acceptance speech read on his behalf by Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space: “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of six other nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.”

Though in other interviews Fayyad has talked about skipping the Oscars, at this one he says he intends to go: “Of course I will be there.”

The “war crimes of the Russians” documented in his film, he says, are “old-style Soviet ways. They’re still thinking of the world in the old way. And we’re just showing proof of what has happened, by the platform of the arts. The art of the cinema.”