Syria is in the Middle East, surrounded by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, so it’s not stranger to conflict. In 2011, civil war broke out when citizens rebelled against President Bashar al-Assad. Years of violence ensued, with the government engaging in frequent bombing runs, assisted by Russian military forces. Far from surgical strikes intended to take out strategic targets, they seem to have been very haphazard, affecting civilians as much or even more than people actively involved in the rebellion. They seem to have no problem with taking out hospitals or residential areas.
All of this bombing caused a lot of destruction. Buildings collapsed, often with people inside. A group of men who call themselves The White Helmets have taken it upon themselves to become a search and rescue squadron. They go to bombing sites to excavate rubble, hoping to find survivors. Sometimes they get lucky, but more often than not, they only dig out dead bodies, and those are often not intact. This is dangerous work, not only because the bombed-out buildings are jagged and unstable, but also because the Syrian and Russian forces seem to delight in targeting areas where people group together.
If you have any doubts about the depths of human assholery, this documentary will put them to rest. You’ll see far too many dead children, including infants, being pulled out from beneath collapsed buildings. You’ll see Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, repeatedly lit up with bomb strikes, including what are called barrel bombs and certainly appear to be just barrels full of explosive material dropped out of planes and helicopters. You’ll see people (again, often children) suffering from malnutrition and lack of medication as supply lines have been cut off. You’ll hear of the futility of trying to escape, as nearby countries like Turkey close their borders. And you’ll see a complete lack of any kind of outside assistance as the people suffer under what appears to be a brutal, oppressive regime directly aided by Russian military forces.
But it’s not entirely horrific. You’ll repeatedly see these men putting their lives on the line, working hard and sustaining injuries, to help their fellow citizens. You’ll see people emerge alive after being dug out from the rubble, and children reunited with their parents. You’ll see the comradery of the rescuers in the moments of downtime, and the way that people pull together in times of crisis. The film feels a bit slow at times, but in retrospect, those moments are just as vital to the documentary, allowing you to get a better sense of who these people are, and giving you a break from all of the awful things being shown.
Last Men in Aleppo is a very difficult documentary to watch. You’re not going to have a good time, and you’re going to see things that you don’t want to see. But it is an important film because things like this need to be brought to light in the hope of making the world a less terrible place.