Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Last Men in Aleppo

A city under attack. Devastation everywhere. People struggling to live in the brutality of war. Eyes  looking ever upward in fear of the next attack. Courageous volunteer Syrian White Hats working to free survivors from the rubble. A charismatic central character, Khaled, a big burly guy with a big burly personality. World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. No wonder I expected a lot of this Hot Docs movie.

The Last Men in Aleppo was moving - and horrifying. For an hour and 40 minutes, one felt as if one were living in the ravaged city of Aleppo, worse than the words of news reports can convey, as people struggle to live in bombed-out buildings, and fear to take their children to a playground.

Yet, as a movie, it was rather unsatisfying. Essentially, the sequence was: Russian planes arrive. Bombs drop. The White Hat team rushes headlong into danger as fast as their rattletrap truck will go. They work with excavators, shovels, pickaxes and hands to rescue people. Sometimes they find a survivor. More often they find dead bodies, or dead body parts. Not enough body bags to handle the dead. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

The repetition of the same scenario dulled its impact. What elicited gasps in the audience at the start drew only silence as the movie progressed. Granted, the scenario was interspersed with  a few scenes of the men discussing again and again the eternal question, whether to leave Aleppo or not. But it's their city, and the camps in Turkey are not a very pleasant alternative. So they stay. The eternal discussion underlined the trap they were in and the hopelessness of their situation. The movie is leavened by some charming scenes of Khaled with his captivating little daughter (the only time we see a female in the movie, except in one crowd scene), and his quixotic purchase of some tropical fish for his rebuilt fountain and pond. But essentially it was rather repetitive.

The movie ends with a horrific body blow, as we see Khaled's body laid out on a plank. The shovels and pick axes are put to work digging his grave. A brave man who lost his life while he worked as a White Hat.