I'm here to share a story made of blood and tears. I am here because I believe in the ability of film to bring justice to Syria.
The peaceful Syrian uprising of 2011 developed into an armed conflict once the ruling regime of Bashar Al-Assad chose to respond with military force. The war in Syria gradually transformed into a dark hole that began destroying the civilian population, and the line between right and wrong became blurred. Officials in all factions were exhibiting Machiavellian behavior, meaning they were compromising principles and ethics in their efforts to achieve their goals. Civilians were glad to put their trust and confidence in the one group that distinguished itself from the rest. I'm talking about those providing civil defense, the group known in the international community as the White Helmets.
In March 2011, I was twice held by members of Assad's intelligence services after I made a film about freedom of speech. In a secret prison, I saw humanitarian workers held alongside artists and journalists; I witnessed men, women and children being tortured to death.
In 2013, I began to develop the idea for this film as I followed Raed Saleh, who later became the leader of the White Helmets. He was organizing ordinary people into a volunteer brigade that would deal with the massive air strikes that hit their streets and homes; I accompanied them to places just after bombs had fallen. They saved the lives of hundreds of children and families. Soon they were targeted directly by the regime and by Russian drone strikes. Many died, leaving their families with no means of support. Yet the people I was filming only grew more determined to continue their work to save victims. I was astonished by their ability to turn loss into motivation to continue searching for life under the rubble.
This made me think about how to convey the nature of this war, as seen through the eyes of these people. I wanted to explore their inner psychological worlds to understand the struggles that they lived through. A film would offer a chance to demonstrate how repulsive the war in Syria was and to raise questions regarding the value and dignity of human life. It could also shine a light on the role of international law in the prosecution of war criminals and how important it is to hold them accountable for their involvement in fostering extremism, terrorism and mass killings.
This film also speaks to the power of using art and documentary filmmaking to illustrate the absurdity of war. One moment stayed with me: Khaled, our main subject, extends his hand to save a victim trapped under debris. The image looks exactly like Michelangelo's fresco of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which shows God and Adam reaching their hands toward each other. It is a moment that illustrates the value of the human touch, and a cry for closer examination of the horror of war and any situation that requires us to take control of our lives. The film provides a pathway to discussing these issues, so that we might broach the subjects of isolationism and nationalist, political and religious extremism.
Our heroes save all victims, even those who have caused the deaths of their fellow White Helmets. This film is a tool for achieving forgiveness and overcoming vengeance, and I don't think it's too grandiose to say that this film can assist in our search for the meaning of life. It can inspire audiences to look closely at the gift of giving one's life so that another may live. Hopefully, through the film the White Helmets will earn the recognition they deserve. And, of course, I am hopeful that when people are given a clear-eyed view of the Syrian civil war, they will be motivated to take action to stop this ongoing tragedy by seeking peace in Syria and helping the people who are asking for help.
War brings out the worst in human beings, but it also brings out the best in us. The White Helmets are a living example of that. Last Men in Aleppo is their story.
— Feras Fayyad, Director