This year, against the background of a massive US escalation of military force in Syria, “Last Men in Aleppo”, a documentary film about the White Helmets of Syria, has been nominated for an Oscar. Last year, a documentary film called “The White Helmets” won an Oscar for documenting a story that had just unraveled after the liberation of east Aleppo. International TV stations aired footage of ISIS and Al Qaeda fighters shelling west Aleppo homes and schools adjacent to their encampment and snipers attacking civilians attempting to leave through the Humanitarian Corridors. They recorded the buses leaving with the last of the fighters who chose to leave rather than die. This is the world the film denied.
When “Last Men in Aleppo” was filmed, occupied east Aleppo was the focus of international angst. Today it is the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, still occupied by extremists and mercenaries. While, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have now returned to reclaim their homes and businesses in Aleppo, Ghouta remains a war zone. After all the information that has come out to undermine the story of “The White Helmets” and the lies that came out of the last stand of the militants in east Aleppo, one can only gasp at the audacity of the Oscars and the film’s promoters for reprising them today.
It is a stretch to call “Last Men in Aleppo” a documentary. It isn’t formatted as a documentary, but rather scenes of some personable characters going about their lives and work are loosely strung together by a narrator telling their story The film has no objective framework. The reciprocal character of the war is not shown. We see a battery of mortars but are not told it’s purpose. We are told that government held areas are safe. But the film was made during a time when the militias governing east Aleppo were firing mortars daily under the flags of Al Qaeda and ISIS into civilian homes and schools in west Aleppo. Many people in west Aleppo, including children, were killed and maimed on a daily basis while pursuing the ordinary business of living their lives. (@EdwardDark, 2016; RT, Dec 2016)
“Last men in Aleppo” is neither clearly political nor does it tell a deeply personal story. Individual scenes play like fiction. But as a fiction film, “Last Men in Aleppo” is lacking the depth of character development and interpersonal tensions that give substance to a drama. It is romantic story is told through the musings of heroes trapped in a city under attack. The men chat with one another and express their feelings about their humanitarian work, their fears and the stress of being under fire. They don’t seem to understand why they are under fire.
The narrator is unnamed – except maybe in the credits, which are in Arabic. At the end, we are told that a main character has indeed been martyred, and there is a list of others who died (in Arabic), giving the appearance that they were the ‘last men in Aleppo’, unlike the people who developed the meme in the real world before heading out of town. The lead actor is on the festival circuit with Fayyad.
At one point, the main character says “everyone knows what’s going on here”. But that’s actually not true. At the time of filming, what was going on in Aleppo was in dispute. Today, the evidence has been revealed and the story they are telling does not reflect what was found to have been ‘going on’. While his remark is meant to underscore the veracity of the production, in fact it is a lie.
“Last Men in Aleppo” has some technical redundancies with “The White Helmets” film from last year. There are a couple of key scenes shown in both films. One is a brief clip of a Russian bombing run during the night. It lasts less than 30 seconds and looks something like a thunderstorm striking the ground and igniting fires. Exactly the same clip is repeated in different contexts in 2 different films. Its a vivid image, but only one. The significance of the strike is unclear since there was a war going on and we don’t know what was targeted. The men claim to be terrorized but the film shows only one instance of such a strike. Were there no others?
Another scene shows the rescue of an infant from a collapsed building. Men struggle and dig and grunt, and finally pull an infant from under the rubble to hold it aloft in joy. It looks like a birth. It is a moving scene, and so both movies start with it and end with it. There are only a few actual rescues shown across both films, out of a claimed 80,000. They are vividly detailed. Are these scenes real or manufactured? Who knows? Its a movie.
“Last Men in Aleppo” has both implicit lies and explicit lies. Early in the film, one of the men says that a barrel bomb destroyed 2 buildings, well, two barrel bombs destroyed an entire compound, ’10 buildings!’ That is ridiculous. You couldn’t put enough shrapnel and dynamite in a barrel to do more than damage one building. They claim barrel bombs are indiscriminate, but they are dropped from helicopters whose pilots can see where they will land. What constitutes a discriminate weapon? A mortar? A firebomb?
Everyone in “Last Men on Aleppo” appears to be well fed and fit as do the men in “The White Helmets”. In contradiction to the news of the day, which claimed that the people of east Aleppo were starving, one man expresses gratitude that he is (in the city) not in the countryside where people are starving. Only the buildings, largely empty, are bombed out and broken in the film. The men interact affectionately with children, especially a small girl. But there are no women characters. The only women we see are background figures in a market and at a playground.
More than once, you see the men searching the sky with the sound of helicopter blades or a plane in the background. There it is! The men comment on the constant threat of attack, but it never results in an immediate attack. And you never hear the sound of shelling from the internecine wars between the different volatile factions governing east Aleppo, and you don’t hear the sound of ISIS and al Qaeda shelling the civilians of adjacent west Aleppo, a daily reality. In a different frame entirely, you hear a loud explosion -boom, then the heroes are off to the rescue. Otherwise, the sounds of war are absent.
There is a scene where the men are repairing their car while the sirens are sounding. It seems like an emergency. People walk by and encourage them to hurry. There is an ambulance parked right behind the car they are working on, but they don’t go and drive that. The ambulance has the ISIS logo in the back window, but no one notices. Struggling to start your junker is a nice working class meme. We can relate to that.
Before the liberation of Aleppo, Medicins Sans Frontiers was rubber stamping White Helmets’ claims from outside Syria. Many of them were untrue but MsF didn’t have anyone on the ground to objectify. AP has been rubber stamping their photos of unconfirmed events like gas attacks and the hospital bombings. Vanessa Beeley documents deep connections between the White Helmets and known terrorists on 21st Century Wire. The real Syrian Civil Defense and ordinary news reporters are not safe where White Helmets work so the WH have the last word and the last picture in most cases.
The White Helmets are getting awards for telling the story the elites want us to hear. Director Fares Fayyad, attended this year’s gathering of the rich and powerful at Davos. However, co-producer Kareem Abeed and White Helmets founder Mahmoud Al-Hattar will not join him at the Oscars. An article in The Vulture , a Hollywood news mag, initially blames Syrian Government inaction which is strange because these men do not accept the sovereignty of the Syrian state, but later quotes Fayyad blaming the Trump Travel Ban, a more likely explanation. The alliance behind the White Helmets and Al Nusra/Al Qaeda in Syria is veiled but well known to government officials.
The White Helmets have been given hundreds of millions of dollars by western governments. Lately they are complaining of a lesser income than reported by their donors. All that money requires an explanation they can’t offer. People talk about them using the money to produce professional quality films, blockbusters, but these films are not professional and could not have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Nor is the rescue equipment they show us worth all that money. By saying it is, we give credibility to another layer of misrepresentation and glamor.
A good camera for their purposes costs at most a few thousand dollars. They don’t pay million dollar salaries to big name actors. There aren’t any significant stunts, or even very many extras in the films. The footage is simple and limited. The editing and sound are clean but unimaginative. Where did the rest of the money go? Perhaps the fact that the White Helmets’ offices were in the same block as the Al Qaeda offices in east Aleppo gives us a clue.
Documentarian John Pilger’s widely quoted remark that “The White Helmets are a complete propaganda construct in Syria” says it all. “Last Men in Aleppo”, is a kind of a repetition of “The White Helmets”. Like “The White Helmets”, it is a fantasy about events that have been investigated and shown to be other than as represented in the film. The promotion of these films for an Oscar is one of the clearest examples of politically driven Hollywood propaganda in decades.
Judith Bello is a member of the Syria Solidarity Movement and has traveled in Syria twice since the war began, in 2014 and 2016. She is also a member of the Administrative Committee of the United National Antiwar Coaliton (UNAC).