Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Last Men in Aleppo: EIFF Review

Hit the jump to hear my thoughts on Firas Fayyad's hard-hitting documentary...

Consistently hard to watch
In grainy real-life footage, the lifeless corpse of a baby is dragged out of the rubble of its family home. Seconds later, another, then another, then a living child missing half a skull. There’s a crunching sound. Pause for a second, and look to your left. There’s a couple tossing handfuls of popcorn into their mouths amid the carnage. It’s an image I experienced whilst watching Last Men in Aleppo, and not one I’m likely to forget in a hurry – but it asks an interesting question about when entertainment ceases to be entertainment; and what the real function of a documentary is when all is said and done.

With Last Men in Aleppo, Firas Fayyad chronicles the lives of the ‘White Helmets’ in Syria - a group of civilians that act as first-responders to violent incidents in Aleppo; aiming to rescue as many of the affected as possible and to preserve life. The documentary largely follows Khaled and Mahmoud, but also touches upon other disparate characters and groups in their vicinity – all scrambling to survive in a desperate war-zone. 

Real fear
At several points, the genuine action reaches bone-shattering heights; with the risk of our protagonists (and indeed directors) deaths peaking when a bomb lands on a car immediately beside them. Unlike conventional fictional cinema, a documentary on this subject has every reason to portray the demise of its central characters – leaving the audience enraptured in anticipation for the worst at every moment. Fayyad often focuses on Khaled’s family life and his children to remind us that he has everything to lose. It does reach levels of repetition which may become frustrating to many viewers, although I fully understand the point of portraying war as a daily occurrence necessarily involves said repetition.

My main problem with Last Men in Aleppo, therefore, is its lack of cohesive narrative. A Q+A session after the screening with the director informed us that a lot of footage was shot, and many different films could have been made with it (about different groups of people). For reasons which will likely become clear, Fayyad has chosen this story above all – but it feels as if this wasn’t always the intention. As a result, the film scrambles over itself in search of a linear storyline – but rather ends up in a heap on the floor as a montage of death and destruction. The power of the imagery shown here is undeniable, but the lack of plot makes it almost feel exploitative at times: as if we’re rubbernecking on some disaster-strewn highway.

Incredible bravery
This, in the end, means it has less of a flow than some of the slicker, yet still raw, documentaries out there (Netflix’s The White Helmets immediately springs to mind here). I wonder what the intended response of the audience is to be to the finished product – this isn’t exactly an issue that a small portion of the Western public can do anything about. There’s certainly a sense of anger, and of pain at these images – but it’s a hopeless anger because these families are in Aleppo, being bombed by the Russian military; and we’re safe in our townhouses and balconies in the UK.

I guess, then, for all intents and purposes, the true achievement and goal of Last Men in Aleppo must surely be to witness and to observe. Not because there’s any particular action we can take, or because there’s a particularly unique story to be found; but because this is happening and we need to see it – we need to know about the mass destruction occurring on a daily basis in our world, and we need to know those responsible.

A city in ruins
In this way, Last Men in Aleppo is truly essential viewing. As a piece of narrative film-making, it may be repetitive and unfocused – but for all my analysis and deconstruction, criticism evades the point of the movie: like downvoting a LiveLeak video because you dislike the cinematography. It’s a reminder that this situation is still going on. It’s a reminder that we need to call countries such as America and Russia out on their crimes against humanity. And it’s a reminder of the destructive power of war. But most of all, it’s a reminder that the people trapped in Aleppo aren’t strangers or statistics; they’re funny, brave, and ordinary people who’ve been dealt a devastating hand – and have lost all their winnings as a result. 
I don't really feel like a star rating is appropriate... but Last Men in Aleppo gets 4.

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