[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 6.]
“Harrowing” is a word that was invented for a documentary like Last Men in Aleppo (streaming on Netflix). It follows a group of men who have come to be called the White Helmets as they go about their work of digging people, dead and alive, out of the rubble of the Syrian city.
These are not soldiers, not UN workers, not employed by anybody. They simply view it as their duty to do what they can in their city. They remain when most of the other citizens have gone. Khaled, in particular, sums up both the hopelessness and the determination of their cause. Looking around at a ruined and half-empty city, he says, “Nobody cares about anybody any more.” But he and his fellow White Helmets are the living proof against that proposition. They are there. They remain. They care.
And as he and his friends construct a monument to their hoping-against-hope in the form of a fountain full of fish, he says that he can no more leave Aleppo than the fish can leave the water. It’s simply the environment in which they live, and he can see himself doing nothing else. Even though his family is in danger, he says that he would rather have them die in front of his eyes than something happen to them far away while he remains in Aleppo (which leads to a heart-breaking conclusion that feels inevitable).
Last Men in Aleppo feels, in many ways, like Restrepo or Korengal (the former is better), in the close distance between the camera and the action. The film crew is right in the middle of everything, both the calm and the storm, as the White Helmets watch the skies to see whether the planes are Russian, and as they hurry from one place of trauma to another.
Part of the confusion is not just the confusion of war, but also the confusion of complicated allegiances, aid (or lack thereof), and who is on which side. From the perspective of the documentary, the White Helmets and the few people left in Aleppo are on their own against Assad’s forces and Russia’s bombers. At the point in time which the film captures, there are no guns shown, no fighting back. There are simply the bombs and the aftermath and the cursing of Assad’s name.
I can’t imagine living in a bombed out war zone, nor being so attached to a town that I would refuse to leave in the midst of such besiegement. But I am always impressed at the resilience of people, that in big ways and small they retain as much of a “normal” life as possible. Amid the smoke, the rubble, the explosions, and the sounds of airplanes, the children play and the stores open for business.
The so-called Battle for Aleppo ended in 2016, leaving more than 21,000 civilians dead, according to the BBC. I’m no expert on Middle Eastern history and relations, nor do I understand the complicated situation among Muslims in various places. And there is no way a single documentary can do justice to any conflict of this sort. But what Last Men in Aleppo impresses upon the viewer is the human cost to every conflict. The White Helmets, while they certainly have their own political and religious opinions and sides, are working on unpaid, humanitarian missions. They have no apparent outside backing. They are no paid. They simply do what needs to be done in a horrible, complicated, bloody mess.
It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s the sort of documentary that can keep outside observers from falling into the usual, easy, and black-and-white categories of the typical Twitterized debate. Even when the sides are clear, answers don’t come easily. How much more when the sides are unclear and the only thing that matters is whether you can get the next child out alive.