Heroism, at least in the movies, is an easily quantifiable attribute, generally accompanied by swelling music and a self-effacing wisecrack or two. The real deal, however, proves to be a much less enviable trait. The Sundance award-winning Last Men in Aleppo is a staggering documentary about a group of scared, harried people fated to do one damned dangerous thing after another. While not easy viewing by any means, this film provides an unforgettable look at people forced into their best, defined by constant moments of terrible clarity.
Director Feras Fayyad’s roving, occasionally trapped-under-fire camera follows a few selected members of the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group tasked with digging for survivors in the rubble of Syria’s capital city. As they cope with the everyday horrors of pulling infants from a collapsed building, or attempting to identify a body from just a foot, the bombings steadily continue.
Amid all the misery, the movie still manages to locate snapshots of grace for its rough-hewn subjects, especially when they cut loose at a wedding or spend an all-too-brief moment with their families at a playground. In a fictional work, the attempt of one man to establish a goldfish pond in a devastated section of the city would probably seem heavy-handed. Here, though, the few flashes of color provided seem like an eminently logical reaction to the chaos of the world. (There’s also the detail that, in a pinch, said goldfish might serve as a food source.)
Such brief moments of respite can’t last, as recent headlines from the region (and a tragic credit coda) prove. Even among the atrocities, however, the strongest takeaway from this remarkable film is how every single figure on-screen—even a briefly glimpsed wounded cat—seems to be trapped in an exhausted state of inevitability… and continues to move forward nonetheless. “It’s unreal,” says one temporarily overwhelmed White Helmet. “It cannot be comprehended by humans or anything else.” And then he gets up and gets back to work.