‘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

‘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.”

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”