At a time where hope seemed lost in many of Syria’s shattered cities, a group of aid workers wearing white helmets emerged from the shadows to restore glimpses of hope to scarred souls. These places that were once schools, playgrounds, markets and homes have now turned into shadows of lives once lived and hope that once existed. Feras Fayyad’s LAST MEN IN ALEPPO documents the incredible of these men whose life mission is to restore hope, faith and peace to those tormented victims of the fierce and brutal conflict in Syria.
Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary and shortlisted for an Academy Award in this exciting category, the film has been warmly received state-side ever since it bowed in Sundance last January, where it nabbed the World Cinema Prize for Best Documentary.
AwardsWatch sat down with Fayyad to discuss this important film that couldn’t have been timelier. At times devastating, this is first and foremost a film about hope and humanity – and those anonymous heroes who don’t win awards nor get their time in the spotlight in the media. But they deserve to be seen, acknowledged and celebrated. Here’s what Fayyad had to say about this wonderful film.
AW: Why did you decide to make the film – and make it now.
Fayyad: For us, Syrians, it sounded like there was no solution for the future. The international community was looking at the situation in Syria in terms of the refugee crisis and was trying to understand what’s really happening in Syria and it was important for them to step back to understand the human crisis first and foremost. I was already in contact with Khaled, Mahmoud, and Subhi (the White Helmets volunteers who appeared in the film) who chose not to escape, not to look away and to take matters in their own hands and help save lives. I wanted to know why they’re running into the heart of danger, why they decided to do this and what inner conflicts are they facing. They were well aware that they may lose their lives – but I wanted to understand what is this immense motivation that led them to disregard all risks and do what they do. I placed the camera in a way that makes the film appear as if it’s being told through their eyes, their perspectives and their harrowing experiences.
AW: Tell us about the production process.
Fayyad: In 2013, I started to ask all these questions I had about these volunteers, their motivations and how they’re helping others while placing themselves in grave dangers every day. I felt that the story has to be told immediately on the ground and I couldn’t wait any longer. I started to work on the pre-shoot preps with a local producer, Karim Obeid, and a local cinematographer who had vast experience in filming in war zones. Together we developed the idea and the style of filming – and we worked hard to make sure the film is technically captivating for the audience to feel immersed in the experience. We wanted them to feel close to the characters and to see and feel what they’re going through. I then met a number of producers from Denmark and Germany and the film was able to land financing and we were ready to start filming. In 2016, we finished the editing and sound design.
AW: What was the biggest challenges while filming? And how were you able to maintain your vision despite all logistical hurdles on location?
Fayyad: There were technical and human challenges. In terms of the human challenges, the White Helmets volunteers were very disappointed of the media coverage – they were constantly feeling they were being used as political tools and so they were extremely careful as to whom they speak to and to make sure it’s all authentic enough. I had to gain their full trust and made sure to explain to them the significance of the film and how it can achieve more impact – in terms of driving more awareness on the grave situation in the country. I went and spent a lot of time with them, observing their daily lives, seeing the harrowing moments they live everyday and track where they’re going and the dangerous roads they have to take to reach and save the victims. As for the technical challenges, sound was extremely challenging for us – given it was a war zone and also because we wanted to capture clear, natural sound that captures the reality on the ground. As for me personally, I didn’t really think much of the safety challenges. When you decide to shoot in a war zone, it’s like you’re making a contract with yourself to forget about your safety. This isn’t about you, the filmmaker, and you need to be ready to forget about safety to be able to capture these harrowing moments in the most authentic way possible.
AW: The film has had a fantastic festival run ever since Sundance. Tell us more about that.
Fayyad: We showed the film almost everywhere. We took it to the States, Canada, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. In almost every festival we showed the film in, we won an award, and interestingly most of these awards were either jury prizes and/or audience awards – which demonstrated how the film is connecting with both professionals and the general public. We were then nominated for the Cinema Eye Honors and later on won the Asia Pacific Screen Award (APSA) for Best Documentary as well as earning a nomination for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards which was so wonderful.
AW: How did you receive the news being shortlisted for an Academy Award?
Fayyad: The AMPAS Documentary shortlist was announced in the afternoon PST that day and it was early morning Dubai time (where I was screening the film at the Dubai International Film Festival). I got an email from my producer who told me the film has made it and that I have to fly immediately to LA because there’s so much work to do, to get the film noticed and to campaign with whatever scarce resources we have. Some pundits and critics expected the film to make it, but I was skeptical because we didn’t have any funding to mount an Oscar campaign for the film. Emotionally, the shortlisting impacted me a lot, especially that as an independent filmmaker, my mission is to tell important stories that deserve attention and can hopefully have an impact. The film is very personal to me – and it calls for peace, change, freedom of speech, equality and justice, values I strongly believe in.
The film is also the first Syrian – and one of the very first Arab – docs to be shortlisted in this category, so it’s an absolute delight.