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'Last Men In Aleppo' Captures The Horror And Humanity Of The Syrian Crisis


The documentary "Last Men in Aleppo" won the Documentary prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has now opened in limited release. It's set in the Syrian city that has become the symbol of Bashar al-Assad's war against the rebels opposing his government.

It's also a city in which a group of men have set themselves the task of saving lives. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Not long ago, documentary and news producers believed that if they photographed great tragedies, natural as well as man-made, then the world would collectively come to the aid of victims. Sometimes that happens but not enough. Many of us have become inured to suffering elsewhere. That's why you should see "Last Men In Aleppo," which focuses on the While Helmets, emergency volunteers in Syria's largest city, which has been virtually leveled by President Assad's bombs, as well as those of his Russian allies.

The horror the film instills, you'll never shake. Although Aleppo has become a rebel stronghold, the White Helmets are not soldiers. They're not even armed. They are, in effect, rubble divers. A bomb falls in the distance, they race to the scene and they comb what's left of buildings. Occasionally, they find a survivor. In an early scene, they pry huge blocks of concrete of a bloodied young boy who stirs vaguely.

They later learn that he died at the hospital. They pull out pieces of bodies, limbs. They pull out dead babies covered in dust, one in striped pajamas. The Syrian director, Firas Fayyad, doesn't linger on the gruesome sights. He doesn't even show the body parts that litter the rubble, although he'd arguably be justified. In time, though, the anticipation of the next bomb is as awful as the sights themselves. Fayyad focuses on two men, Khalid and Mahmoud.

And sometimes, his camera just sits with them as they talk resentfully about the non-intervention of other Arab countries. Then they hear sirens or jets and run into the street to see where the next bombs will fall. The White Helmets are also the subject of an Oscar-winning short film now on Netflix called "The White Helmets." It overlaps with "Last Men In Aleppo," and it's very strong. But it's a more conventional work, more exposition, more talking heads.

It doesn't have the immediacy or the experiential quality of this film. Here, there's room for less predictable elements, like a scene in which families nervously come together on a playground, aware that large gatherings are magnets for Assad's bombers. The kids are in heaven because toys, candy and swings transcend place and time. An even more striking moment is when an on-looker says, of the fathers on slides, they're using their kids as an excuse to play.

There are also goldfish. Mahmoud buys some in what's left of the market. Maybe he can keep them, he says, and if worst comes to worst, eat them, which is not implausible, since many of the hundreds of thousands of civilians have died not from bombs, but malnutrition. But you can also feel his satisfaction in building a concrete pond for them and watching the fish swim, as if the world were normal. A few weeks ago, I saw "The Promise," an admirable though often inept attempt to tell the story of the Turks' massacre of Armenians in the early part of the 20th century.

In one scene, those Armenians speak of somehow getting to the safety of Aleppo. In "Last Men In Aleppo," the men speak of somehow crossing the border into Turkey. The irony is lacerating. That the White Helmets have chosen to remain in Aleppo and save people, an attempt in their limited way to keep their world from collapsing completely, is beyond my power to comprehend.

All I know is that after watching "Last Men In Aleppo," footage of distant falling bombs will never seem abstract, so far removed from the hell that they bring.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.