Millions of people worldwide saw the June 2014 video, shot during Russian air strikes against the city of Aleppo, in which a Syrian rescue worker reaches into the rubble of a collapsed building, grabs the collar of a buried baby, and pulls it out of the wreckage to safety. But in Feras Fayyad’s moving and suspenseful documentary Last Men in Aleppo, one sees the video through particular eyes, as a little raven-haired girl watches it on a smartphone in her family’s living room. “That’s daddy!” she exclaims to the filmmaker, and then turns to her father. “You got him out! It was you!” Her father, Khaled Omar Harrah, is a member of the Syrian Civil Defense or, more popularly, the White Helmets. As civil war rages, these heroic volunteers hurtle toward the sites of aerial bombardment and risk their lives to recover the survivors, the dead, or even body parts for identification.
Last Men in Aleppo plunges viewers into the carnage and destruction of the Syrian civil war after Russian planes began providing air support to Bashar Assad’s brutal regime in September 2015. There are staggering vistas of shattered high-rise buildings and grim scenes of dead babies being extracted from piles of broken concrete. “The bombings, the ruins . . . it’s unreal,” Khaled remarks. “It cannot be comprehended by humans or anything else.” One wonders how he, Nagieb, and Mahmoud, the three rescuers Fayyad follows, cope with all the stress and suffering. From the looks of it, their strongest defense mechanism is to redirect their fear for themselves into love for others—most powerfully, for the children around them. Confronted with savagery on a daily basis, these grown men are only too eager to take refuge in a child’s innocence before it’s worn away by the horror and privation of the war.
Khaled, the most vivid of Fayyad’s three subjects, dotes on his two girls, Batoul and Israa. Shortly after Batoul presents him with the video clip of the “miracle baby,” he leads her by the hand through the battered streets of Aleppo, searching for vitamins to combat her malnutrition. Stocky and good-natured, he never seems happier than when the girls are romping around him at home, though he grows silent and distraught when a TV news report shows a local hospital in ruins and newborn babies lying helpless in their displaced incubators. When Khaled and his friend Abu Youssef report for overnight duty at another White Helmets center across town, the father hangs on phone calls from his girls. Following a beautiful long shot of dropped bombs leaving golden light trails in the black sky, Khaled sits in a darkened room, the phone illuminating his face as he listens to Israa complain about her sister. “Keep talking to me,” he begs.
A native of Aleppo and a founder of the White Helmets, Khaled is torn between responsibility for his wife and daughters and a greater responsibility to the city and its people. “The dilemma is our children,” he explains to Fayyad early in the film. Khaled refuses to abandon Aleppo and agonizes constantly over whether or not to keep his family with him when others are fleeing for the Turkish border. When he asks Israa and Batoul if they’d like to live in Turkey, they decline, but later he and Abu, hunkered down in the cab of their rescue vehicle, debate whether Khaled should relocate the girls and their mother. Abu asks: “Khaled, if you send them away and you all get besieged in separate areas, would that be better, do you think?” Khaled takes a fatalistic view of the conflict but can’t bear to be separated from his daughters. “I’d rather they die before my eyes than have something happen to them far away,” he says. “I would cry blood if that happened.”
Unlike Khaled, Mahmoud has no kids of his own, but he seems no less vulnerable to the suffering of children. Early in the film he responds to an emergency call and succeeds in freeing a little boy from the rubble of a bombed-out building; two babies are pulled from the wreckage, dead, before another boy is found alive. A few days later Fayyad tags along as Mahmoud, a humble and religious young man, pays a visit to the boys’ family to inquire about the children who were lost. In a touching scene, one of the rescued boys crawls into Mahmoud’s lap and asks how he was saved. Embarrassed by the camera, Mahmoud shushes him but finally replies, “By God’s grace. You’re a flower and you must see life.” Driving home, he swears he’ll never repeat the experience. “It felt like we were there to show off,” he tells Fayyad. He redirects his anxiety for himself mainly toward his younger brother, Ahmad, who lives with him in Aleppo (though they’ve told their parents they’re both safe and sound in Turkey).
Selfless concern for the young is hardly limited to the White Helmets. Recounting a rescue operation to fellow volunteers, Mahmoud marvels at the mother they found trapped in a collapsed building: “Her body was pierced by metal spikes. One of them stuck out of her back. . . . Three and a half hours under the rubble and she only worried about her children.” As Mahmoud confesses, he told her the children were safe to keep her spirits up when in fact they were all dead. In a sense, besieged people focus on children because doing so is their only way of ratifying the future. Khaled’s friend Abu, a wiseacre but often wise, puts his finger on the phenomenon as he plants a few saplings near the White Helmets center, telling his fellows, “If you don’t get to eat from them, the next generation will.”
By the end of Last Men in Aleppo you may wonder whether the adults are protecting the children or vice versa. Hungry for diversion, Khaled and Abu install a stone fish pond on the roof of the center and admire their colorful specimens like delighted kids. And about an hour into the film there’s an extraordinary scene, shot during the February 2016 cease-fire, in which Khaled takes advantage of the calm to walk his daughters to a local park for the first time in ages. Everyone else in the neighborhood has the same idea, and as children run wild in the mobbed park, their parents break down and start playing on the swings and slides as well. They might all be children at school recess, though in this case recess ends when a public-address system announces that warplanes are headed for the city, and everyone scurries home. v