There are so many documentaries about the crisis in Syria out there right now that you’re spoiled for choice. Last year, a Netflix short called The White Helmets won an Oscar; this year, at least three (City of Ghosts, Cries from Syria and Last Men in Aleppo) were eligible to compete for the feature documentary category, with Ghosts and Aleppo making the shortlist. In the end, Aleppo was the only one nominated, and I can see why without even having seen the others. It’s a fly-on-the-wall, heroism-in-action kind of film that puts faces to the men in white helmets who rescue civilians from the rubble of bombed-out buildings. It’s something of a loving tribute to them from this filmmaker, and also a shocking eye-opener to Westerners unable to fully grasp the magnitude of the crisis. It’s an historical document recorded for posterity, charting the ruin of Aleppo at the hands of Bashar al-Assad. It’s also made with the full realisation that, in a few years’ time, Aleppo may be no more. This could very well be one of the last films made before its destruction, and the urgency to film it before then is undeniable.
My main problem with this film is how little it does to distinguish itself from, say, last year’s Oscar winner The White Helmets. If you’ve seen that one, you’d have little reason to watch this, because it covers almost the same ground. The major differences are that this one is longer lengthwise, and (I’d assume) takes place during a longer timeframe. This one is also more intimate, dealing with only a few of the White Helmets and their personal lives. But both have similar aims, and honestly, there’s only so much bombing trauma one can take. Watching these horrific events unfold over and over again is too grim for any one person to handle, and the point is clear: this is an undeniable atrocity, and thank God for the brave men putting their lives on the line to save others.
If you need a primer on Syria and its heroes, this is a good one to watch. But if you’ve seen other documentaries about the country and its war in the past, I don’t think Last Men in Aleppo will provide you with more insight.