VOD Review – Last Men in Aleppo (Oscar Nominee)
This movie is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 90th Academy Awards. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival where it premiered. It got a limited theatrical release in the late spring and early summer. It’s been recognized and praised at numerous places and by numerous critics. It has a strong chance of winning the Oscar. It is perhaps number-two of the five nominees, coming in just behind Agnès Varda’s Faces Places. One bit of trivia that might help or hurt this movie at the Oscars is that this movie is essentially a sequel to The White Helmets, a British film that won Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 89th Academy Awards, just last year.
The White Helmets is about the men in the Syria Civil Defense who volunteer to do search and rescue after air strikes or bombings. They basically pull people out of the rubble of demolished buildings. They are typically the first responders, especially since the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, has left many areas with little government support. The White Helmets follows three of those first responders, as one describes the rescue of a trapped baby named Mahmoud. Video of that specific rescue is featured at the top of this movie.
Khaled Omar Hurrah is the man holding baby Mahmoud in that video. He’s not in The White Helmets as a protagonist, but he is the protagonist here. Khaled is a leading or main member of the Syria Civil Defense. He has two daughters. He apparently has a wife whom we never see. He’s very cute and loving with his children. In addition to watching him do his work, his constant question is whether he should leave Syria or stay and continue working as a White Helmet.
For any one watching, the answer is obvious. The second scene reveals why. Khaled’s daughter is suffering from malnutrition. Khaled goes to almost a half-dozen pharmacies and none have the vitamins his daughter needs. For his daughter’s health, he should leave. Yet, even if that wasn’t enough, the next few scenes reveal that children are dying every time the air strikes hit buildings and collapse them, crushing toddlers and babies. Yes, not everyone can evacuate. Some people remain due to logistics, politics or socioeconomic factors. The Syria Civil Defense or SCD needs all the volunteers it can get, but weighing the pros and cons for Khaled makes his decision seem like a no-brainer. Yet, he doesn’t do it. Instead we watch him and his team go to strike zone after strike zone, pulling corpse after corpse, so much that the ending feels like a foregone conclusion.
If that conclusion is foregone, then the movie has to do other things to make the journey more interesting or engaging. Much like Restrepo (2010) at the 83rd Academy Awards and Cartel Land (2015) at the 88th Academy Awards, this movie sells itself on the fact that the cameras are on the ground in the thick of a lot of the action. The cameras capture real and live excitement contemporaneously. In Restrepo, it’s soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. In Cartel Land, it’s vigilantes fighting drug trafficking in Mexico. Here, it’s blue-collar workers fighting the rubble that is ever-increasing in Syrian cities. It’s immersive, making us feel like we’re right there, surrounded by bombs and digging through rocks and dirt.
However, that kind of action can only be interesting on its surface so many times. I was bored after the first time. It’s of course initially shocking and horrifying to see Khaled and his men do what they do, but there is a detachment to it that’s intentional on the men’s part. Yet, it shouldn’t be intentional on that of the filmmaker’s part.
Mahmoud is one of the men in the SCD. He works with Khaled. He’s not to be confused with baby Mahmoud who Khaled rescued. Mahmoud is a grown man who does his own rescues of children. In one scene, we see Mahmoud visit the little boy whom he rescued named Hassoune, and it’s heartbreaking because the little boy latches onto Mahmoud and won’t let him leave. Hassoune is obviously grateful and in awe of Mahmoud. It’s also interesting to see Mahmoud’s feelings or reaction afterward.
That’s where the true power of this movie lies, but that moment is rather isolated, as director Feras Fayyad never invites us into the homes of any other person, be it of these rescuers or the survivors. For the most part, the movie is either in a disaster or strike zone or it’s hanging out at the base or center where the men of the SCD hang out. It would be the equivalent of hanging out the whole time at a fire station, if this movie were about firefighters. Even when Mahmoud’s own brother, Ahmad, is nearly killed, the movie has a detachment about it.
The next scene after Mahmoud’s brother is nearly killed is Mahmoud attending a wedding. It’s a weird juxtaposition that’s meant to show that life goes on even in a war zone where nearly every building has been decimated or torn open, barely standing up, but Fayyad never talks to anyone at that wedding. There’s no real examination of how those recently wedded people are coping or how they feel about their circumstances.
Knowing how people like that feel would’ve helped to underscore why guys like Khaled and Mahmoud also choose to stay in this bombed out city, beyond not having the finances or resources. It would have also underscored the tragedy of the final scene. What also would have helped is more biographical information about Khaled. I’m not even sure how old he is. He’s a volunteer for the White Helmets, so I don’t know what he’s using for money to feed his family, which might be the point that he’s not, but I just feel like I don’t know enough about Khaled to sympathize for him by the end.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 28 mins.
Available on Netflix.