Review: ‘Last Men in Aleppo,’ Models of Courage Under Fire

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A Syrian man, identified only as Khaled, with his children, in the documentary “Last Men in Aleppo.” Credit via Sundance Institute

After President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was accused of using sarin gas in an attack on his country’s people, and images of dead children shocked the world, a missile strike on a military airfield ordered by President Trump was celebrated in some of the United States media. The conventional wisdom held that standing up to Mr. Assad would teach a lesson. More than one journalist invoked the notion of beauty in describing the attack.

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Trailer: ‘Last Men in Aleppo’

A preview of the film.

By GRASSHOPPER FILM on Publish Date May 2, 2017. Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive. Watch in Times Video »

But missiles and bombs do not teach, and are not beautiful. All they make are corpses and rubble. “Last Men in Aleppo,” a documentary both urgent and mournful, opens in the ancient Syrian city of the title, in the aftermath of a barrel-bomb attack by Russian aircraft. Members of the search-and-rescue group known as the White Helmets — which was also profiled in an Oscar-winning 2016 short, now streaming on Netflix — comb through the ruins of a building, eventually extracting a baby who survived its collapse. This is only the first of many such scenes. The repetition would be numbing if each did not yield a new horror. An infant, dead, its neck snapped, its head flopping, as a volunteer hoists the body. A calico cat with its back limbs pulverized, trying to scurry out of a corridor and into shelter — where? Nowhere. And so it goes.

The movie, directed by Feras Fayyad, with Steen Johannessen as co-director, takes a direct, often galvanizing cinéma vérité perspective, some artfully shot opening and interstitial footage notwithstanding. In one scene, the movie’s central figures, Khaled, a warm, bearish father of two, and Mahmoud, an intense younger man, are trying to douse a car fire when their White Helmets crew, and a camera operator, come under attack and have to run for cover. It’s terrifying. Khaled’s sweet young daughters provide respite, but their presence also increases a sense of dread. These are beautiful, kind human beings. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them.

But from where we sit in a movie theater, there’s nothing to be done.

This is an essential film, but it is also a terribly dispiriting one. We all navigate challenges and endure loss, but “Last Men in Aleppo” is likely to make you almost ashamed of your comforts and leave you with a feeling of impotence. I suspect it’s the filmmakers’ wish that once those initial feelings ebb, moviegoers will ask what they can do to help. This picture doesn’t offer hope; its aim is to compel us to create some.

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Source: New York Times

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