Sift through the layers of Syria’s war of misinformation while bearing witness to the work of the White Helmets.
“What is there left to say about the White Helmets?” asked the Guardian’s review of Last Men In Aleppo after its Sundance world premiere. Although the review was very positive, the writer was keen to point out the shorter 40-minute run-time of Netflix’s Oscar-winner The White Helmets, another documentary about Syria’s first responders, the Syrian Civil Defense – the volunteer teams who got survivors and bodies out of bombed buildings in besieged East Aleppo. Are we jaded Western viewers just all White-Helmetted out?
Yes, we’ve all seen the footage; from YouTube clips circulated on Facebook, to broadcast news reports. The digging through the rubble, the rescued children, dead babies, screaming parents. The dust, on everyone, all skin ghoulish grey whether living or dead. For a while in 2016, the world had its eye on Aleppo; now things have moved on. This documentary, filmed until 2015, when filmmaker Feras Fayad was forced to flee Syria under threat for his life, is now a historical tract from a very changed city.
Here’s why you should watch it, then, why you should take in all one-hour-forty-four of its runtime, rather than the condensed hour-long edit, or just making do with Netflix’s shorter piece. This film is as much about what happens in the spaces in between the cycle of bombings and rubble-scrabbling. It’s about the banality of life in a warzone, the way those extreme images we in the West can dip into for a couple of minutes become everyday experience when you’re living them.
Fayad followed the White Helmets for two years, particularly Khaled, a former painter and decorator, with two small daughters and a healthy sense of humour (we first meet him chuckling at “that motherf***er Bashar” as another bomber plane screeches overhead) and soulful, spiritual Mahmoud, younger, unmarried, and clinging to religion to make sense of what’s going on.
The heroic rescues are there – Khaled, famously, rescued Aleppo’s ten day old “miracle baby” from under a collapsed house in 2014; Mahoumed saves two small boys, one of whom attaches himself, puppy-like, to his embarrassed rescuer on a visit afterwards and refuses to let him leave their temporary accommodation. The heartbreak is there, in the floppy, pyjama-clad bodies of eight month-old twins pulled out as silence descends across the frantic bombsite.
But there’s also the waiting time, the pauses, Khaled schlepping round chemists trying to find vitamins for his malnourished daughter or taking local children on a group outing to a hastily-assembled play park (called off as the bombers rumble back into view); Mahoumed getting a haircut or cooking some soup back at the base. The White Helmets kick a ball around and one of their supervisors bursts it. Khaled tries to build a fishpond in his back garden, with the idea that they could eat the fish if and when the siege gets worse. “My beautiful fish!” he cheers as the water pours in and holds, a tiny, much-needed victory.
It’s a frustrating topic for a filmmaker: banality. There’s no obvious narrative in an ever-repeating cycle, particularly one where hope is slowly leaking out. And yet, Fayed keeps you watching and watching, invested in his protagonists, embedded in their reality. Some of their friends on the team are lost in airstrikes; in one scene they try and identify Ahmed, who we have followed as an audience, by a severed foot. Those of you who clicked the “miracle baby” link above will have discovered that Khaled died in an airstrike last year, a final gut-punch in Fayad’s end credits; the finished film is dedicated to his memory. Those shots of that big strong man lifting his toddler in the air in a rare moment of joy add an extra shiver to an already fraught experience. Take the time to live through this with him.
Searching for neutral information online about the White Helmets is not an easy task. The organisation has been the subject of what seems to have been a very strange propaganda campaign by Russian state media, allied with Bashar al-Assad, a prominent target in the deliberate of misinformation surrounding the Syrian civil war. There are claims, which fact-checkers have debunked, that the White Helmets are all actors, propagandists for Al-Qaeda, that hospitals in East Aleppo were not actually bombed, that the rescues are being staged.
Hundreds of commenters with very little activity on their accounts will spring up quickly below the line on any article about the White Helmets, linking to the same few pieces of “proof”, pouring scorn on the naivety of anyone standing up for them. As a military tactic, this cloud of misinformation is incredibly effective, planting enough seeds of doubt that could push anyone down a rabbit hole of confusion and paranoia.
Here, then, is another good reason to watch this film. This is not a brief burst of atrocity and chaos watched on a phone and open to accusations of fakery; these are lives, unspooled, as real as a documentary can be. Yes, there are set pieces, there are the set-ups that most documentarians resort to. However, that East Aleppo was bombed and reduced to rubble is either beyond doubt or a very clever moon-landing-sized hoax involving a lot of set building; that the Syrian Civil Defense pulled people from the bomb sites and delivered emergency first aid, similarly. While the Western world bitched away in comments sections, the volunteer corps carried on trying to save actual lives. As Scott Lucas, Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham put it: “all this politics and propaganda, however menacing, is irrelevant to the people on the ground, whose focus is on the next mission.”
Take that time and bear witness to their sacrifice.
Last Men in Aleppo brought to you by Moving Docs
Screenings this week in Berlin and Bocholt, Germany.