Director Of Oscar-Nominated Aleppo Doc Wants His Film To Serve As Witness

Feb 23, 2018
Originally published on February 24, 2018 2:04 am

This winter, the Syrian government regained control over the entire city of Aleppo. For years before that, it was the largest urban stronghold of anti-regime rebels. Over those years, there were countless government bombings, and the city was reduced to rubble.

The documentary Last Men In Aleppo, by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad, takes viewers inside the city. "I grew up in the countryside of Aleppo," he says. "And Aleppo — it's my city, where I know every single street and every single store."

In 2015 and 2016, Fayyad and his crew followed a group of self-appointed rescue workers called White Helmets. The film has been nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category, making it the first Syrian film to receive that honor.


Interview Highlights

On the experience of filming his city while it was being destroyed

It's very painful on one level, but on [another] level it's put me in the position of responsibility. ... This is a story [that] could be writing the history and save the evidence for what's happened in this period of time in our human history.

On the deliberate, repetitive nature of some scenes

I tried to tell the story as a nightmare for this people — like, sleeping, waking up, seeing the same things and there's no solution. And they try different ways to face that. You see that it's like the bomb is repetition, again and again. And I try to [use] the camera ... to witness what they saw, and the ugly side and the [beautiful] side. But watching the [beautiful] side, it's kind of discovering through the eyes of the character what's making them stay, from where they get their inspiration to [resist] and stay in this city.

On why the White Helmets stay

Actually, it's like a philosophy question, a big philosophy question for all of us when we face a lot of pressure from our government, from the war, from anything. We find ourselves under pressure to leave. But there's something ... [that makes] them resist this decision of leaving. And this is a story — it's about the common inner-conflict between your personal survival and what you can do for your community through what you have. They stay because they feel that, what they can do, it makes sense. They save almost 100,000 civilians. Just imagine if these people left ... their city.

On what happened to the family of White Helmet Khaled Omar Harrah after he died

After he [was] killed, his wife with his two daughters, they moved outside of Aleppo to [another] part of Syria, and hopefully they are safe. There's no real safe place in Syria, but there's a place less dangerous than the others. And the wife of Khaled, she was pregnant, and she had the baby and called it Khaled also.

Fatma Tanis and Jessica Deahl produced and edited the audio of this interview. Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Academy Awards are just over a week away. One of the nominees is the documentary "Last Men in Aleppo," the first Syrian film to be nominated for an Oscar. It documents a year in the life of a rebel outpost in the Syrian city of Aleppo. There's no narration. Rather our guides are Khaled and Mahmoud. They're volunteer emergency responders, White Helmets. They spend their days racing to the site of the latest Russian or Syrian government bombing, then digging out survivors and dead bodies from under fallen buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LAST MEN IN ALEPPO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

KELLY: Before Syria's popular uprising and the severe government response that followed, Khaled and Mahmoud led different lives. Filmmaker Feras Fayyad describes them.

FERAS FAYYAD: Khaled - he's from well-educated family, grew up in Aleppo, and he dreamed to be a firefighter because his uncle was a firefighter.

KELLY: Watching the documentary, you lose track of how many dead and injured people, dead and injured children Khaled encounters all while worrying about the safety of his own young daughters who are there in Aleppo because he has chosen to stay. Then there's Mahmoud.

FAYYAD: Mahmoud is a philosophy student. He was, like, seized with the books - the philosophy books about the meaning of the life and why we have to fight for the life and the hope and the meaning of humanity. And then one of the accident that happen in front of him in Aleppo - there is a child burning in the car because the bomb. And it's just stuck in his memory, and that motivate him to volunteer in the White Helmets.

KELLY: Feras Fayyad's camera captures every detail of Khaled and Mahmoud's lives under siege. I wanted to understand how Fayyad got such extraordinary access to the men he filmed. And I asked him, is he himself from Aleppo?

FAYYAD: Yes, yeah. I grew up in the countryside of Aleppo. And Aleppo - it's my city where I know every single street and every single store, yeah.

KELLY: What was that like filming your own city as it was being destroyed?

FAYYAD: It's very painful in one level. But in other level, it's put me in the position of responsibility in telling this story. It's not just telling this story as interesting in the subject or the moment of telling the story, but it's about - this is a story could make the history. This is a story could be writing the history and save the evidence for what's happened in this period time in our human history.

KELLY: I want to ask about a choice you made in how you told this story. There is a lot of repetition in this film, and I mean that in a good way. But your characters wake up and scan the sky for bombers. And then they race to where the bombs are falling, and they start to dig through the rubble. And we see that in different parts of the city over and over and over, these same scenes. Was that deliberate?

FAYYAD: Yeah because I tried to tell the story as a nightmare for these people - like, sleeping, waking up, seeing the same things. And there is no solution. And they try different ways to face that. And I tried to bring the camera as their eyes to witness what they saw in the ugly side and the beauty side. But watching the beauty side, it's kind of discovering through the eyes of the character what's make them stay, from where they get their inspiration to resistance and they stay in the city.

KELLY: That question of whether to stay - that is one that they wrestle with throughout this film - this question, do you stay in your city, or do you try to free to safety and bring your families and your - and their children to safety? Why did they stay?

FAYYAD: Yeah, actually it's like a philosophic question - a big philosophic question for all of us. When we face a lot of pressure from our government, from the war, from anything, we find ourself, like, under pressure to leave. But there is something in the human star (ph) to make them resist this decision of leaving. And this is the story. It's about the common inner conflict between your personal survive and what you can do for your community through what you have. They stay because they feel that what they can do - it make sense. They save almost 100,000 of civilians. Just imagine if these people left behind them their city. There is 100,000 of civilians will be...

KELLY: Wouldn't have survived, yeah.

FAYYAD: Yes - will not survived, yeah.

KELLY: The film opens with the White Helmets racing out to dig through rubble and try to help people. They pull a dead baby out of the rubble. You show that. Why? I mean, how did you decide what to include in that shot?

FAYYAD: Well, when I was - I decide, like, to choose a style that give all the space for the character because I felt the character should lead the story. So I try, like, to make the camera. It's discovering what this is and put the audience and experience what's coming through this eyes of the character, discovering the worst of the war and the beauty of the war and understand their dilemma and understand their resistance for the worst tide of the war through what they face and through what they saw from the dead bodies and from how they digging and rescue the children, that you saw them, like, survive and alive. You will feel, like, happy as you are there, and you feel sad as you are there.

KELLY: One of your central characters, Khaled, dies. Do you know what happened to his family? Are they still in Aleppo?

FAYYAD: No. Aleppo is fall down, and that's controlled by Assad and the Russians and the allies.

KELLY: Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader.

FAYYAD: Yeah, the Bashar al-Assad of - the Syrian leader and his allies. And his family is - after he's killed, his wife with his two daughters - they moved outside of Aleppo to other part from Syria. And hopefully they are safe. There's no real safe place in Syria, but there is a place less dangerous than the others. And the wife of Khaled - she was, like, pregnant. And then she get the baby, and she called it Khaled also.

KELLY: Aw, that's a lovely gesture.

FAYYAD: Yes.

KELLY: Feras Fayyad, thank you.

FAYYAD: Thank you so much for having me here.

KELLY: That's Feras Fayyad, director of the documentary "Last Men In Aleppo," which you can find on Netflix. It's the first Syrian film to be nominated for an Oscar.

And here's one more plot twist. While Feras Fayyad has made it to California for the Academy Awards ceremony on March 4, his producer and his assistant director have not. They were told their U.S. visa applications were denied under President Trump's restrictions on travelers from Syria and other countries. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.