A centerpiece of the Oscar-winning 2016 documentary short “The White Helmets” was footage of the rescue of a baby from the rubble of a bombed building in Aleppo by volunteers from the Syrian Civil Defense, the group whose nickname lends the film its title. In the new feature-length documentary “Last Men in Aleppo,” we’re again shown another viral YouTube clip of a dramatic rescue of a baby, while also meeting one of the baby’s rescuers, Khaled Omar Harrah.
Although there are other parallels between the two films, the Sundance prize-winning “Aleppo” is a deeper and more artful film, allowing us to get to know not just Khaled, but also his co-worker Mahmoud as they go about their lives away from work. Scenes of Mahmoud rushing off from a bombing to freshen up for the wedding of a friend, or of Khaled playing with his children before whisking them home when a bomber is sighted, are powerful and poignant reminders of the tragic and surrealist nature of life in this city besieged by its own government and Russian bombers.
Director Firas Fayyad worked with a team of cameramen to document the White Helmets pulling people — and sometimes body parts — out of sites in Aleppo. Interspersed with these are many shots — probably a few too many, to be honest — of the devastated cityscape. These images of destruction are wrenching, to be sure, but a little goes a long way, and Fayyad’s overuse of repetitive imagery slows down an otherwise controlled and impressive film.
Fayyad’s most striking and poetic footage is not of carnage and ruin, as it turns out, but of the goldfish that Khaled sets up in a pond at the White Helmets’ headquarters. Those images work on two levels: underscoring the hope and life that thrives — against logic and great odds — in the middle of a disaster area, while also serving as a metaphor for Khaled’s refusal to leave the city he loves. (As he notes, he couldn’t live anywhere else, just as a fish can’t live outside of water.)
While “Last Men in Aleppo” could stand a trim here and there, it mostly uses its length to good and heart-rending effect, delivering a lingering, close-up — and ultimately tragic — look at the misery and joy taking place, side by side, under the eyes of the world — and all too often accompanied by inaction from much of the international community. Sometimes, as Mahmoud says, it feels as though the whole world — neighboring Arab states as well as the West — is against the citizens who are left there, struggling to survive.
“Last Men in Aleppo” makes it hard to forget them.
Unrated. At the AFI Silver. Contains disturbing images of carnage and brief coarse language. In Arabic with subtitles. 104 minutes.