Filmmaker Firas Fayyad shines the spotlight on Syria with award-winning doccie

2017-12-19 14:45

Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els attended a screening in New York where documentary filmmaker Firas Fayyad talked about his award-winning film the Last Men of Aleppo.

New York - Shortly after the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Syrian secret police captured documentary filmmaker Firas Fayyad for documenting the civil unrest in the streets. Protesters had demanded an end to the country’s authoritarian regime, held in place since the 70s by the Assad family.

Bashar al-Assad, who had taken office in 2000, responded with brutal police and military force to suppress the pro-democracy movement and opposition militias. The Syrian Civil War now rages into its seventh year. 

Fayyad had studied in Europe and by his account, the police thought he was a spy. While he was violently tortured in prison, he also witnessed the torture – and the death – of others all around him. “I have to tell this story,” he thought. “It’s the responsibility of artists to tell this story.”  

The film idea he developed in prison is now a Sundance winner and on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination. Last Men of Aleppo tells the story of the men who stayed behind to save and salvage what they could as Syrians fled and bombings increased. The world would come to know them as the White Helmets.

A couple of weeks before the shortlist of films vying for one of the five Oscar nomination slots for best documentary was announced Friday, 8 December, Fayyad stood in a small cinema in New York for select screenings and conversations about the film. The 30-something director’s hair is white-grey and his voice is soft, sometimes barely audible. 


He tells the audience that since the film’s release he has received death threats and was forced to leave Syria and now lives in Denmark. A shorter version of the documentary is now also available on Netflix and screened earlier this year at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival. (A few days before the screening the festival announced Fayyad would no longer be able to attend a planned Q&A session.)

Earlier this year, Fayyad and Danish co-editor Steen Johannessen won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. In his acceptance speech, with the award lifted in one hand, Fayyad’s voice turned forceful: “We need freedom. And justice. And justice. And justice.”

It’s necessary to point toward the nexus between the world’s rife refugee crisis and the Syrian Civil War – nearly half a million people have been killed, many of them children, and 11 million people have fled. 

Fayyad started filming in 2013 with a team of cinematographers led by Fadi al Halabi. Later he decided to only use footage from the 2015 to 2016 stretch – when the bombings increased, and so too the lifeless bodies of babies and children that the White Helmets tried to reach under tons of rubble of destroyed homes. 

Fayyad tells the story through the lives of two members of the White Helmets, Mahmoud, and Khaled. Khaled is a father of two and grapples with whether to send them away. Their food and medicine supply is dwindling, they can’t play outside. They can’t be children.

The film is peppered with short videos they send to their dad, always asking when they’re going to see him again. He clearly adores them, but he will not leave Aleppo while there are still people to save. So too Mahmoud, whose main concern is keeping his brother, also part of the White Helmets, safe. In a devastatingly fraught scene, they get caught in a firefight and Mahmoud can’t find his brother. His screams are frantic. 


Their selflessness and bravery are what he wanted to show, Fayyad says. He can’t possibly forget the danger they put themselves in. A bomb would fall only a couple of meters away and they wouldn’t run away. It’s frightening to see that on screen. I was so acutely aware of the cost of this life they choose to live, to the point where I was paralysed in my seat, the intensity of the film amplified by the realisation that the world wouldn’t see this without al Halabi and his crew. I couldn’t look away. This is what he wanted to do, he says. He wants to stop the world from looking away. 

There is a scene in which some of the White Helmets allow themselves a moment of rueful despair. “Where is the world?” Or “at least, where are the Arabs? Why do they look away? Why does no-one help us?” they ask. 

Internationally, especially in news reports, the human perspective, stories like that of Khaled and Mahmoud, are ignored, Fayyad says softly.

Nobody asks why they choose to stay, what inner conflicts they face. Not only buildings and cities are destroyed, but families, communities and souls.

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