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

White Helmet Khaled Omar Harrah was killed during an airstrike in 2016. He's part of a group of volunteer rescue workers featured in the documentary <em>Last Men in</em> Aleppo (available on Netflix)<em>.</em>
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
White Helmet Khaled Omar Harrah was killed during an airstrike in 2016. He's part of a group of volunteer rescue workers featured in the documentary Last Men in Aleppo (available on Netflix).

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.