"We all die here together."
That vow, heard several times in Last Men in Aleppo, is apparently a common response to the suggestion that life might be better in Turkey or Germany than in the rubble of what was once Syria's biggest city. The country's White Helmets, who pull survivors and corpses from bombed buildings, will stay as long as there is anyone to aid.
Last Men opens with a closeup of a goldfish's eye, one of several moments that suggest the possibility of ordinary life amid brutal oppression. But Syrian director Firas Fayyard — working with Danish co-director and editor Steen Johannessen — spends most of his time amid dust, fire, and death. Even a break for an impromptu soccer match ends with a killing — of the ball. It's slashed by a man who won't tolerate the frivolity.
Shot with skill and considerable courage by Fadi al Halabi and his crew over about a year in 2015-16, the documentary initially seems a series of events linked only by their severity. Again and again, the White Helmets rush to a collapsed building and excavate its trapped occupants. Some of them are still alive.
Aside from the destruction regularly showered by Russian warplanes, the continuity comes from two rescuers, Khaled and Mahmoud. The first is a beefy family man who dotes on his two children and ponders if they should be sent away. The second, younger and more intense, worries only about his little brother, a fellow White Helmet named Ahmad. Mahmoud wishes Ahmad would flee to the haven of Turkey, where the siblings have told their parents they live.
The narrative meanders a bit, but snaps into focus with its final calamity, an event that occurred just nine months ago. It's a found metaphor for what happened in Aleppo, but also a raw, moving slice of life-and-death.
Last Men balances the visceral and the melancholy. Karsten Fundal's neoclassical score is sometimes too romantic in tone, but finally modulates into a funeral march.
The filmmakers assume the viewer has some idea what's happened in Syria since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. They include scenes of protests against the Syrian president, and pleas directed to potential allies. ("Where are the Arabs, man? Where is humanity?") But they don't offer more than a few on-screen sentences of historical background; for broader context, there's only the war videos that the Helmets sometimes watch on their cellphones.
The movie allows that Aleppo, at least as of last year, had it better than some outposts of resistance. Food was available, although medicine less so. During the lulls in bombing, excursions to the playground were possible, and street merchants sold goldfish.
The White Helmets are Muslims, of course, and praise Allah when they receive good news. But the things that really seem to motivate them are family, friends, and a code of laconic masculinity that any fan of classic American Westerns would recognize.
In one of the most poignant scenes, Mahmoud visits a young boy he helped pull from beneath a crushing pile of debris. The child is thrilled, and begs his rescuer to linger. Clearly uncomfortable, Mahmoud manages to escape the kid's embrace. Outside, he remonstrates himself: "I felt like we were showing off."
Mahmoud's modesty is appealing, but he is indeed the hero that boy saw him to be. Watching him and a few others at their grim work, it's impossible not to wonder: Where is the rest of humanity?