Courageous cinematographers follow the White Helmets on volunteer rescue missions in war-torn Syria in Firas Fayyad's Sundance-winning documentary.
"Are you leaving Aleppo?" It's the only question left asking in a city of ashes.
But there's no time for an answer: the roar of a warplane rips across the sky. A sonic boom reverberates throughout the city. Two young men wearing white helmets rush toward the smoke and chaos in a ramshackle van. In its wake, a bomb has reduced a couple large apartment buildings to rubble.
"Who lived here?" one of the White Helmets asks a stunned civilian covered in soot.
"My babies are in there! My babies!" The civilian pleads with the men to rescue his children. His wife has already been found dead. After an hours-long makeshift excavation process, four children are pulled from the wreckage—two young boys are saved, but it is too late for their baby sisters.
As the sun sets on Aleppo, the White Helmets look to the ground, and then back up at the ominous sky.
"How can we make a cinematic movie inside Syria, very close to the bombing, to the war, to the dangers?"
In Laurie Anderson's 2015 personal documentary Heart of a Dog, the director is on a hike in the mountains with her dog when a hawk swoops down from above, nearly capturing the unwitting animal. In narration, Anderson says, "The rest of the time we were in the mountains, [the dog] just kept looking over her shoulder and trotting along with her head in the air, her eyes scanning the thin sky, like there’s something wrong with the air. And I thought, where have I seen this look before?
"And then I realized it was the same look on the faces of my neighbors in New York, in the days right after 9/11, when they suddenly realized, first, that they could come from the air. And second, that it would be that way from now on. And we had passed through a door, and we would never be going back."
Such is life in Aleppo. The White Helmets, an organization comprised of citizen search and rescue workers, are the last beacon of hope in a nearly decimated country. Despite the fact that they are major targets for bombings carried out by Assad and the Russians, these brave men and women risk their lives to be heroes. They pull men, women, children, and lifeless bodies from the rubble when no one else is left to save them. So far, the organization has saved 80,000 lives in Syria.
Syrian-born filmmaker Firas Fayyad, who now lives in exile, counts many of the White Helmets as personal friends. Two years ago, he reached out to filmmaker and journalist friends who still lived in Aleppo to ask if they might be interested in participating in a documentary about the White Helmets. Director of photography Fadi al Halabi, along with cinematographers Thaer Mohammed and Mojahed Abo Aljood, wanted to help tell the full story of humanity in Syria—the one the news has failed to capture. Under Fayyad's supervision, the cameramen followed the White Helmets to the front lines of the Civil War, documenting the people who volunteered for the most dangerous job in the world.
The result is the heartbreaking and inspiring documentary The Last Men in Aleppo, which Fayyad was determined to render a cinematic experience, despite the near-impossible task of filming it in the first place. It's a window into life in a city now governed by death. The subjects grasp for every semblance of normalcy; a White Helmet father is only a half hour in to attempting a peaceful excursion to the park with his children when the hawks begin to circle. "The Russians! Look up! Scatter! Scatter!" Like Anderson's dog, everyone's eyes are drawn to the sky with a familiar mixture of terror, dread, and disillusionment.
As for that first question of leaving Aleppo, the White Helmets have only one answer: "If I do leave Aleppo, it's only to the cemetery."
No Film School spoke with Fayyad and co-director Steen Johannessen at Sundance 2017, where The Last Men in Aleppo won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in the category for international documentary films.
"If I do leave Aleppo, it's only to the cemetery."
No Film School: Do you want to start by telling me how you two first met and started working together?
Firas Fayyad: We met one year after I started the process. I met with [Johannessen] in Gaziantep, while he was meeting with the cinematographers doing a workshop on filmmaking.
Steen Johannessen: Gaziantep is just across the border of Syria, in Turkey. The rest of the team that had been shooting in Aleppo came across the border and we had a filmmaking workshop with them.
NFS: How did you initially find your team on the ground in Aleppo?
Fayyad: I [have known] these people for a long time. I worked with them many times while they were filming for news reports. They are journalists and reporters who decided to stay after the war broke out to report. I said to them, I want to tell a story in a cinematic way. In the workshop, we talked about telling the story, following the character, and shooting the character. For me, the workshop was to get to know each other more, finding our way to communicate.
Johannessen: The [Syrian cinematographers] were tired of doing all these news stories and they wanted to do something long-form. They are very young I think they have grown a lot working with Firas. We've been communicating with them through WhatsApp. We established an upload link so they could upload full quality footage. The dialogue has been that they upload, then Firas has gives them directions, and back and forth. Normally, the footage that comes out of Aleppo is very shaky and handheld. Thanks to [these cinematographers], we have an actual cinematic feeling and really, really beautiful shots. They’ve become really good.
"The journalists follow the actions. In cinema, we follow the story behind the actions."
Fayyad: The experience with this film was like a film school. [We looked at many films] as examples for how they can follow the characters and how they can make the conversations happen. Sometimes, I would send them films for inspiration. I wanted them to watch a film and start to analyze it to get to a certain point.
[We talked a lot about] our love for cinema. Telling the story of the cinema, showing the emotions people go through. We would watch the footage they uploaded and I would send notes like, "Yes, it’s good idea, but we should make this kind of shot longer. Give it more time."
NFS: Would you tell the cinematographers to go back and follow someone? Were they ever asking questions while filming, or was it all cinéma vérité?
Johannessen: We decided early that we wanted cinéma vérité. We wanted to make a film without the interviews and without voiceover. There was, of course, some back and forth with it because of financiers and broadcasters that wanted voiceover. But in the process, Firas and I realized that we had very similar tastes in what we wanted.
Fayyad: When I talked to the [shooters], I would ask what we needed to tell from each scene. Who’s our main character? Because in every scene, there is a main character. In every scene, there is something to follow. There is a beginning, climax, and end. I wanted to make sure they could catch the emotional feeling and the conversations on camera.
It was a big conflict for me whether this movie would be cinematic or journalistic. I’m coming from a cinema background—a film school background. One of the big challenges was, how can we make a cinematic movie inside Syria, very close to the bombing, to the war, to the dangers? With specific people, in specific situations? It is not easy to use the camera and move in a smooth way—to catch all of this and react.
Johannessen: Most of the characters get worn out. We would follow them for a long time and concentrate on their work. Of course, at some point, they go, “Why are we doing this? Why does this make sense for us?” That’s also been a lot of the work: to keep them working on the project. There have been periods of on and off. We have been shooting [for] a long time, and it is really hard work to have a camera with you all the time.
Fayyad: The small cameras—the 5D, 7D, and 60D—helped us. But the conversation with the White Helmet characters was most important. I talked to the characters via Skype, via WhatsApp, Facebook, and I tried to be very close to them and know what they are thinking, what’s happening in their minds, what are their big problems. I tried to know day by day.
Then, talking to the cameramen, I tried to figure out what was important to follow. The cameramen are super talented; they work very fast and they take big risks. Of course, they are paid. This is work. I told them, “Just follow this storyline, let's see what happens. Maybe we can catch this." I gave them some ideas of what might happen [based on conversations with White Helmets] and told them what they could possibly catch for the story, for the arcs of the characters.
"They shot at the car and the cameraman were in there. He thought, 'I am going to die now.'"
Johannessen: We had many discussions about how to end the film. I mean, the reality keeps evolving, and the story of Aleppo changes so much in a year. When do we stop shooting?
NFS: What did you decide, ultimately?
Johannessen: Well, actually we kept on shooting for a really long time, and then something happened that you will see in the film that made it natural to make an endpoint. But even after that happens, we kept on shooting because the history of Aleppo was so dramatic that it was really, really hard to stop filming because we might miss some historic moment.
NFS: You brought up a conflict between cinema and journalism, and how you struggled to make this film cinematic rather than journalistic. Has journalism failed to represent life in Aleppo?
Fayyad: The journalists follow the actions. In cinema, we follow the story behind the actions. What happens just after the action? What or who is left behind? We wanted to see the body language, hear the language and the voices, look into the eyes of the people, hear sound of the feet on the floor. And the location. We would tell the cinematographer, "Take care to show everything around you." We knew this is would help tell the story more than just going through the action, seeing the dangers in the moment. I said to them, "Get very close, as close as you can." We wanted the details—cinema lives in the details. The journalist will shoot a wide shot, while the filmmaker will prefer a close-up.
Fayyad: We thought about how the war affected each character and what was living inside them. Yes, conflict happens, but we tried to be with them in their special, quiet moments. The silence when they're feeling tired. The depression. The exhaustion. The moments of reflecting on the war. It's these moments that made us want to tell the story, not just capturing the action of war. How it affects the people.
NFS: Those moments were powerful. One of my favorite scenes showed one of the White Helmets going out into the city while bombs were dropping so he could buy a pet fish. He was just trying to live a semblance of a normal life; he wanted something small to live for. You'd never see that in the news.
Fayyad: Just one day before that happened, one of the cameramen sent me a Whatsapp about the main character. He told me, “He’s crazy. He’s going to buy a fish while the city is being besieged!"
I told him, "This is the moment we have to follow. This is the moment. This is where the real story happens." For the cameraman, this was the moment where he started to understand what kind of movie I wanted to make.
NFS: Did you feel an ethical responsibility to your subjects and cinematographers on the ground in Aleppo?
Johannessen: Of course. Looking through the material has been a really tough journey because you feel powerless. It just keeps going. You see people die all the time for long, long time. This has been going on for four years. This has been a really tough experience. Thinking about what happens to our characters....
"How can I make them continue filming and not feel scared about being killed? I feared for the subjects and the cinematographers."
Fayyad: It was important to establish trust with the subjects, the cinematographers, the team. We talked to the characters all the time and told them how important it was to share their story with the world. We told them to trust in the people who will watch their story. We told them we wanted to help to stop the war.
Many times, the characters felt tired and they wanted to stop filming. They would ignore my conversations. They didn’t answer the cinematographers. They were feeling depressed about the situation that was developing in Aleppo and Syria. if we lost a character halfway through shooting the film, I would think about adding another character, and [it would be difficult] to follow all of the characters. So it’s important to have a conversation with your subjects. Make them trust. Be honest with them. With trust, everything will be okay. I told the cinematographers how we could give [the White Helmets] hope and give them a goal.
Johannessen: We told them, "This means something."
Fayyad: [We said] "This is an important story. And you will feel it when we finish."
NFS: There is a goal larger than everyone, which is to show the world the atrocities that are happening and that humanity still exists in Aleppo.
Fayyad: But I wondered, how can I make them continue and not feel scared about being killed? I feared for the subjects and the cinematographers. Because the film was like a family. It was like talking to your brother, your sister, somebody that means a lot to you. Every [time] I knew they went out to film, I felt crazy. Sometimes I felt angry. If something happened to them, what I would do? It was not easy for me.
Johannessen: But also, the characters and cinematographers had a lot invested in the film. They wanted to tell the story. It wasn't just us sending them out. It’s that they wanted to go out because they know it’s important.
Fayyad: And they trusted us to share their story. This is more important than anything else. I realized that if your character didn’t trust you and your team didn’t trust you, then the [movie] would stop.
Johannessen: In times of war, trust is really fragile. It’s life and death. Every time they go out, they know that they risk their life. Is it worth going out? Does it make sense today to go to work?
"Looking through the material has been a really tough journey because you feel powerless. It just keeps going. You see people die all the time."
NFS: Did you make decisions to go strategically to some places, and avoid dangerous places?
Fayyad: I always thought about the safety. When I talked to them, I said, 'Don’t go to the places where you could get killed." Many times we decided not to film something because it was [too dangerous], but they decided to do it anyway.
One of our main characters, Mahmoud, was going to save people from around Aleppo. Then, [Assad and the Russians] shot at the car and the cameraman were in there. He thought, "I am going to [die now]."
Johannessen: This was on the front lines when the city was becoming sieged.
Fayyad: He made the decision to go. It's an amazing scene that shows the meaning of sacrifice. He said, “I want to do this.”
Johannessen: It also has a special meaning in the sense that this place, Castello Road, was the only link out of Aleppo. Everything coming to Aleppo came through there. It was a very dangerous place.
NFS: What is the current situation with the White Helmets?
Fayyad: In general, the organization keeps working. Because of their work, people are being saved from under the rubble. Their work is also keeping the streets clean, clearing the destruction—
Johannessen: Distribution of food, that kind of thing.
Fayyad: Sometimes they do Syrian Civil Defense with the UN. I think their work will be more important after the war done because their work will be about rebuilding Syria. A new story at the end.
NFS: After seeing this, many people will want to do something to help the White Helmets. What is an effective way of supporting their cause?
Fayyad: [Donate] money to the White Helmets website. Also, if people want to help, they can start a [political] movement to push their government to find solutions to end the war. This helps more than just sending money.
NFS: For people who are less sympathetic to the refugee cause, your film shows an important tension between leaving and staying in Aleppo. Some Westerners don't understand that refugees don't want to leave their countries. People loved living in Syria when it was safe to do so. What else do you hope your film communicates to the world?
Fayyad: I hope once that people watch this, they realize that war can start at any time from racism and hate and anger. It's important to have solidarity and stand with each other.
Johannessen: Watch for humanity. Watch for humanity and watch for solidarity.
Fayyad: Cinema helps us to spotlight the importance of being together. If we are in separated cultures—separated countries, nationalities, and all of that—I think that's a dark future for our world.
Johannessen: Another thing [I hope people take away from this movie] is that personal choices actually make a difference. The subjects in this film chose to go out and help people, even though there are costs that they pay. I think that people should reflect on that.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.