TV-MA. Sometimes the world isn't a pretty place. Last Men in Aleppo is one of the most brutal movies I have ever watched. It is not because it is exploitative or that's what people want to see. It is exactly the opposite. These amazing men lead R-Rated lives. They do the job that no one in the world wants to do and they see the worst of humanity every day. We have the benefit of having someone warn us about things we don't want to see. That's what the TV-MA is for. If you don't want to see something that will break your heart, that's the warning. But the lives of these men need to be proclaimed. This movie will destroy you, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't need to be seen.
DIRECTOR: Firas Fayyad
I watched "The White Helmets", the documentary short about the guys who go into blown out buildings in Aleppo. For those unaware of the White Helmets, you really need to be doing some Googling. (Geez, I'm really terrified that I'm going to get super political in this one. I can feel it bubbling up inside me. I'm just going to make enemies and my wife is going to get angry at me again for stirring up the pot.) I'm also writing this a little annoyed, so that's probably going to taint this entire review. Why am I not just hitting backspace right now? Anyway, the White Helmets are a group of men who are kind of extreme first responders to the shelling that is going on in Aleppo. "The White Helmets" establishes why these guys do what they do. They find hope in the hopeless and understand the fundamental value of life. Their mortality rate is heartbreaking. When bombs go off and people are running away, that's when they jump in their vans. Their families are there and everything they love is in Aleppo. The first documentary ends on this scene that establishes the tone of the first movie. The first movie is all about hope. I'm full on spoiling this scene because it is vital to understanding what the message of the first movie is and how that has affected this film. The movie (I'm pretty sure) ends with one of the White Helmets rescuing a newborn from a collapse that should have killed it. There's no way that the newborn should have survived what happened. It is the most inspirational scene ever. But the newborn survives, amazingly less injured than what would have thought possible. The first movie is about hope. This is at a time when the crisis in Aleppo was thought to be a temporary one.
This movie, Last Men in Aleppo, begins with the responder who saved that child watching the footage of him saving the child. He is moved by his actions because so much time has passed since that moment. He has seen so much death and sadness and that's what the theme of the second movie is. This is still the story of those men and how what they are doing is right and just. However, the problem with hope is that it is hard to hold onto for a long time. These men now have the attitude that they will continue doing what they do, but that they will probably die in Aleppo. This movie --and I was heartbroken when I saw this --shows their failures. The first movie acknowledged that many of the people that they try to rescue die before they can get to them. That is more the reality of their situation. They pull so many dead children out of rubble and they treat the bodies with such a reverence and respect that you become angry at the bombers for what they are doing. One thing that is established firmly within the narrative presented is that Aleppo is not the military target traditionally associated with war. Rather, bombers look for high civilian population centers to be most effective. This movie messed me up, guys. The weirdest thing is that this movie doesn't factually present anything different than "The White Helmets" did, but I think I felt the despondency of their situation all the more. This movie focuses on their families. This is about the sacrifice that they make and how they are better people than I would ever be.
One thing that I keep noticing about the movie is how they move on with their lives with everything that they do. No doubt, Abu, the center of the film, is very angry with the regime in power. He often interrupts the conversation to discuss the evils of the regime and the hopelessness of the situation. Sure, he's aware that there's a camera on him and this is his opportunity to tell the world about his situation. But he also endures in a time where I would break down and collapse. The guys play soccer and take their kids to the park. He throws his kid in the air. Perhaps the most human moment in this story is that his kid loses his shoe when Abu throws him in the air to catch him. This moment seems so normal in a world surrounded by devastation. But immediately after this, Abu leaves them to go play as he heads home. I have a hard time having my kids play without me directly watching them. It was in this moment that I don't know how I could handle 1/100th of the struggle that Abu does in his daily life. His daughter is slowly becoming more ill from malnutrition and that's just part of the world of Aleppo. No one has basic vitamins or a well rounded diet. Yet the people continue on everyday. It is their way of life. There are still vendors and restaurants, despite the fact that the city is quickly eroding into dust. Life isn't always about comfort. Life is about patterns and love and holding onto whatever makes you feel normal sometimes. I have such a Western attitude to the whole thing. I know that if anything ever happened to Cincinnati, I would pick up the kids and the wife and move away. But this isn't always an option. Between spiritual bonds and physical restrictions, the people of Aleppo struggle for a sense of normality.
I want to show everyone this movie, but it is really brutal. I think we now live in a world of statistics and things that infringe on our comfort zones. When I think of the term refugee, I now think of those people in Aleppo as shown in "The White Helmets" and Last Men in Aleppo. It's so odd that we have become hostile to the word "refugee". I urge everyone to give this movie a chance. I always respected The Diary of Anne Frank, not because it was a well written book. It was written by a kid. But it also made the Holocaust real. It is hard to wrap my head around large statistics. The bigger the number, the more of a cold hard fact it becomes. But what Last Men in Aleppo does is what Diary of Anne Frank does. It makes it about a real person dealing with real horrors that I don't ever experience. I live a life of privilege. The least I can do is draw attention to the horrors that these people experience.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.