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‘Last Men in Aleppo’ director sheds light on making a movie in a war zone

Filming was occasionally abandoned when aerial bombardment intensified. (Photo supplied)
The film follows volunteers working for the White Helmets in Syria.
The documentary won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in January, 2017.
The film was shot between September 2015 and autumn 2016.
DUBAI: The Syrian director Feras Fayyad had his first encounter with the White Helmets just over four years ago. It was 2013, a barrel bomb had been dropped on the city of Aleppo and members of the search and rescue team were running in its direction with little regard for their own safety.
Shortly afterwards, in one of the worst explosions to hit the city, many of them lost their lives.
It was a moment that would shape Fayyad’s future. Amazed by their ability to turn such loss into the motivation to continue to search for life under the rubble, he began to contemplate the media’s portrayal of the civil war in Syria.
“At that time all the media were focusing on refugees, battles, wars and terrorism, but behind all of that there was a story of these men with their families who faced everything to stay,” Fayyad told Arab News. “They had a sense of responsibility toward their surroundings. They were running toward where they might lose their lives.
“In my mind, I wanted to catch how much this war destroyed the relationships inside families and how those families survived. What did they do, what made them keep saying and doing what they did, knowing that saving the lives of others might cause them to lose their own lives?”
The end result of that contemplation — “Last Men in Aleppo” — had its Middle East premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival, which wraps up on Dec. 16.
Shot in collaboration with Danish filmmaker Steen Johannessen, the documentary won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in January and has been described by The Guardian as a “100-minute account of lives lived in hell.” Powerful, heartbreaking and immediate, it has won critical praise across the world.
Set in Aleppo after five years of war, it follows volunteers working for the White Helmets as they face a daily life-and-death struggle, scouring through rubble in search of bodies and signs of life.
Volunteers such as Khaled Omar Harrah, a father who will do anything to save his two daughters; Mahmoud, who feels guilty because his brother Ahmad already volunteers for the civil defense unit, so joins himself; and Abu Youssef and Nagieb, who will try everything to make sure their best friend Khaled survives.
“These kinds of relations between the characters drove me to another level, where I discovered how those people survive and what motivates them to keep doing what they do,” Fayyad said. “The cohesion of social relations was immeasurably strong, contrary to what I thought — that is, that society would disintegrate as a result of war and devastation. But I found that what made these people survive was to hold on to their relationships. It’s a story about fatherhood, brothers, friendship and love.”
Produced collaboratively by Larm Film in Copenhagen and the Aleppo Media Center (AMC), Last Men in Aleppo was shot between September 2015 and autumn 2016.
For years the AMC had filmed civilians being bombed — uploading the footage to CNN, Reuters and YouTube — and acted as reporters in front of the camera. It was a method that co-director Johannessen said they had grown tired of, mainly due to its ineffectiveness in raising international awareness. So they teamed up to try to tell their stories in a longer format.
Understandably, making a film in a city under aerial bombardment proved harrowing, while the co-directors also needed to assuage the fears of two of the main characters that the film was not about them seeking personal fame.
“It’s hard to explain how dangerous it was, but whoever watches the film will see the madness and irrationality that surrounded us,” said Fayyad, who was tortured and imprisoned by the Syrian regime during the early days of the war. “Where the city literally burned, the sounds of death (besieged) us at every moment. But what was impressive was the adherence of the citizens of Aleppo to life and resistance and survival.
“We were able to capture the most impressive moments of the meaning of love of life and strong adherence to human values, which was a compass for our characters and for the survival of the population.”
As the aerial bombardment intensified, filming was occasionally abandoned, while those filming would sometimes drop their cameras and become rescue workers themselves.
Filming was particularly difficult for Fayyad, who was born and raised in Syria, but was forced to flee the country in 2012, heading first to Jordan and then on to Turkey, before relocating to Copenhagen. He first started working on Last Men in Aleppo while in Turkey.
“Some ideas can cost you your life,” said Fayyad, who had to slip in and out of Aleppo during filming. “This is how difficult it was for my cinematographers and me to bring this idea to life. But during the shooting we would look at how our characters faced challenges bigger than their abilities as humans for the sake of one idea — to save the lives of people. The people of their homeland, the people who know them.
“This in itself was for me a great motivation to think more about what can be done through art and what my mission as an artist was in front of all these challenges. My observations of the difficulties of the characters’ internal conflicts, where they have to decide between their personal and their families’ safety and their humanitarian duty toward those who believe in it, turned into questions in the film. Questions about the value of art in wartime and what it can do or change (also arose), as well as how it can be a testimony to history (and) space for them to express their desires and internal conflicts.”
In his absence, the cinematographers would continue to film, with the footage smuggled out of the country electronically. “For sure, one of our heroes on this film is the IT guy who worked hard and long to protect my footage,” said Fayyad, who has received several threats since the release of the film. As a result, he never lets it be known where he is living or where he is going.
At the Dubai International Film Festival, Last Men in Aleppo was among 18 films selected for this year’s Muhr Feature competition. Others include Lucien Bourjeily’s “Heaven without People,” Kurdish director Sahim Omar Kalifa’s “Zagros,” Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Jabrah Al-Daradji’s “The Journey,” and Annemarie Jacir’s “Wajib.”
“This experience changed me a lot as a moviemaker and as a human being,” Fayyad said. “We made this film as a testimony to the history of our region. A testimony to war crimes that may someday be used as criminal documents to bring war criminals to justice.”

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