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

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Filming was occasionally abandoned when aerial bombardment intensified. (Photo supplied)
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The film follows volunteers working for the White Helmets in Syria.
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The documentary won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in January, 2017.
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The film was shot between September 2015 and autumn 2016.
Updated 13 December 2017
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‘Last Men in Aleppo’ director sheds light on making a movie in a war zone

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.”


INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019
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INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”