International Security

This man stayed in Aleppo to make a film as the bombs fell

Feras Fayyad's "Last Men in Aleppo" Image: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

Charlotte Beale
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Feras Fayyad directed the award-winning documentary, and Oscar-nominated film "Last Men in Aleppo". The film follows the siege of Aleppo through the eyes of two members of The White Helmets, a volunteer civil defence group. Last Men in Aleppo has received numerous accolades, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and a place on the Oscars shortlist for best documentary feature.

Feras was born in Syria in 1984, and grew up in Aleppo and Damascus. He gained a BA in audio-visual arts and filmmaking from EICAR, a film school in Paris. On returning to Syria, he worked in television for three years, before making his first documentary about Syrian poet and dissident Ja'far Haydar. Before he could finish it, he was arrested by Syrian intelligence services, tortured and jailed for eight months. Feras is now based in Copenhagen.

Many people will watch Last Men in Aleppo and feel moved, but also powerless to help. What would you say to them?

I didn’t make Last Men in Aleppo to ask people to do something. I just want them to think about what the film leaves inside them. I don’t want people to feel shame, but to discuss shame. Not to feel guilty, but to discuss guilt. To discuss the feeling is more important than feeling it. When you feel very hard human feelings like guilt or shame, it doesn’t help at all. Discussing the feeling moves you away from being frozen by it.

I tell everyone to do whatever they feel like - to write about the film’s story, or to talk about an issue in it that impacted them. If you want to help with money, you can donate to the White Helmets.

If you want a long debate, have one. Because deeper than doing practical things is finding a solution to stop this happening again, in other places. Discussing how we can protect human values, and not lose trust in our future.

I made this film to express my personal feeling. I grew up in Aleppo. I know every street, every smell, every wall, the colour of every building. When I put this story in front of an audience, and they get the same feeling about Aleppo as I do, as I’ve had since my childhood, that’s not just a success for the film - that’s a success for us as Syrians. What I wanted most is to show the Syrian war as a personal story.


What could the rest of the world, including other governments, be doing that they are not?

Syria doesn’t only need peace, Syria needs justice. There have been millions of people killed, families and children. And there have been people involved in these crimes.

Talking about justice means addressing war crimes. A huge number of people have been killed or thrown in prison because of their political opinion or their background. These are crimes that should be addressed as war crimes. War criminals should be recognised and taken to court. This must be part of any peace process.

How can you ask people to come back to their country if they know that the people who were involved in killing their children and families, and who might threaten them in the future, are still there?

You were sent to jail for eight months for making your first documentary. How did that experience affect you?

I started a project about a poet, Ja'far Haydar, who was a dissident in Syria under Hafez al-Assad. He was a champion of freedom of expression. So he chose to leave Syria. It was an interesting subject for me because I was born in the time of Hafez al-Assad and then lived through his son Bashir al-Assad’s regime.

My plan was to show the film at Dubai Film Festival. But the Syrian uprising had just started. You didn’t know who you could trust to do the post-production for a documentary like that. So I had to take the film to Dubai to do the sound editing there. But I was arrested before I left, at the airport. At the first checkpoint, they said ‘follow me’. Then they put my t-shirt over my face and kidnapped me.

I was in jail for eight months. I had heard stories about Syrian prisons and what happens inside them since my childhood, from family, friends, whispers. Growing up, it was our biggest fear, worse than losing your mother. Every year I got older, the fear would grow twice as strong.

From your childhood, you hear people say that once you’re inside, you will wish to die. And that’s what happened. I wanted to be killed, because I couldn’t handle more torture, psychological or physical.

Image: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

They took my food away, they put electricity on my body, they beat me. They try to make you lose your dignity. But I realised however scared I was of them, they were ten times more scared of me. As a filmmaker, they see you as a leader and as someone whom other people follow, whose opinion others listen to. After I realised that, I started to release myself from my fear.

For years and years these people have wanted to build a wall around Syria, to stop the international community and politicians from seeing what is going on. They don’t want to open anyone’s eyes to it.

It was one of my worst experiences. But it was important, because I saw with my own eyes how people are killed and tortured. I heard the voices and the sounds. This government is torturing its own people for their opinions, their expressions, their freedom of speech, their activities and their films.

Filming Last Men in Aleppo, you were not just a documentary-maker - you were documenting the destruction of your own city. How do you manage being an artist in a conflict zone?

Film is my blackboard to show ideas and experiences. For example, I wanted to show how the everyday sounds in Aleppo have changed. For years, the sounds were of cars, of people selling food and vegetables, being themselves. Now the sound of bombs, of guns, of destruction is on every street.

I tried to search for hope in all the destruction, the destruction of buildings, of cities, of memories, of homes. I tried to find it through the characters. Khaled tries to be hopeful, to see something beautiful. That’s the point of following him walking through the destruction, as he looks for a place to sit down and breathe and smoke his cigarette, and not think about his fear or his inner conflict about whether he should stay or go. But just think about finding a place to enjoy his cigarette, and enjoying it. This was a way of exploring the resistance of the people who stay.

Taking a decision to be an artist who expresses his feelings means facing challenges, especially in a country under a dictatorship. Even if you survive making the film, the film itself could threaten your life. They want to hide you, to attack you. Just for deciding to be a free artist, and choosing a difficult subject, like Last Men in Aleppo.

Image: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

Once I decided to make this film, I thought about how to open up debate about every single point the story would address. That’s how art works. It should not tell a story with one side. It should not give a solution, like a doctor. It should open up debate, about the future and the present and the past, and make people think about themselves in relation to the subject.

In one way, of course we have to find a solution for the war. But making this film, I was thinking about the meaning of being human in a place where you can't find a solution. I wanted people to be still thinking about the film when they got back home, ten days or a month later. I tried to do that without being too pushy as an artist, without establishing too beautiful frames or too beautiful colours. I wanted to make characters that you connect to and that make you ask yourself at the end of the film: how does this story impact me?

This is a debate I have with some journalists who say they don’t understand what the impact of this film should be. It’s about thinking about our moral lives as humans, in such a position.

We have seen many videos of the White Helmets and the Syrian conflict in the news and on social media. How did you position Last Men in Aleppo so that it was different? And so that it touched your audience differently?

Those social media images are an incomplete story. They are taken in a single moment without any context. You see something’s happened, but you don’t connect to it. You saw the boy sitting in the ambulance with blood on his face, and raising his hand, and seeing there’s blood on his hand. But you will not understand what has happened to him.

I want to work far away from all that. I want to find a way to show people a different perspective, to bring them background. I want to show the inner conflict in all these people, to show the contrast between their reality in Syria and what they want as humans.

When I saw all these images on social media, I asked myself, what do these pictures leave inside me? Nothing. I asked myself, how I can make people actually think, and leave them having a moral debate and conversation?

My question was, what makes these characters survive? As a human, if you stay in a place like Aleppo, you must have a huge motivation to do that. Maybe you saw something nobody else saw, or something impacted you and made you stay, more than another person who comes from exactly the same place but who left.

I wanted my camera to take the perspective of eyes. Discovering how people take the position of God, in a way, because there is no god there. When people are threatened with death every day, they need real, physical creators. Digging through the destruction is like rebirth from death. It’s going deeper and deeper to find life. In those characters’ positions, you feel that you have to do something to bring life back.

I tried never to use the camera from a vertical perspective, never to show a view from above. All my cameras tried to take a human perspective. I thought about Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, and about how it creates such a powerful feeling when you stand in front of it. I have Michelangelo everywhere, on my phone screen, my computer background. I am always thinking about how his images work.

Image: Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

There’s a moment when the characters are sitting on a roof, looking at all the destruction. It’s then that beauty starts to be created, through their friendship, their care for each other. These are human values. All our history we have fought for them. All the time we have been threatened by a regime or a system which tries to break down these kinds of relations and make us lose trust.

This is not just a war story about some people with weapons who fight, and ask themselves should we kill or be killed? This story asks how we can survive through our relationships, through human touch and human voice.

Why do you do what you do?

I think it’s the only way I can speak freely. The only way I can experience everything I’ve lived through, from my childhood until now. It’s fighting my fear. We grew up feeling that we couldn’t share our feelings, our speech, because we were scared. Making films releases my fear. It’s like shouting out, shouting that justice is important.

But I also want to show that belief in ourselves is important too. Belief in others, in human beings, in friendship, in trust. I want to show that human relationships have been the only way to survive, and to survive for years, under Assad, father and son. Our friends and our families is how we make our lives continue.

I search for hope and the best of humanity, because I have seen the ugly side. I’m motivated to use what I can do as an artist, to understand human values through these characters volunteering as White Helmets. I wanted to understand what makes them stay. The meaning of displacement through history is important to me. What makes some people leave and some people stay?

The guilty survivor is a part of it. You feel you survived and you have to do something for others. But the film’s not just doing something for them, it’s discussing our own position as humans. You have to decide what you can do to make sense of it all. For me, art makes sense of it, Shakespeare and Michelangelo help me make sense. I thought about Hamlet’s inner conflict a lot when making Last Men in Aleppo.

I have experienced depression and disappointment. I have felt like what I wanted to happen was never going to happen. Then a particular moment just seized me, certain events and certain dangers, and I tried to understand it through these characters. I do what I do to think about the meaning of humanity, what it means to be alive.

What are you working on next?

I am working on a film about a group of female doctors in Syria who established an underground hospital to save lives.

Cinema is always representing women as a beautiful bodies, or as queens, or as victims. This film is about these women being no different from men in that position. Whether man or woman or transgender - that’s just our sexual or gender identity. That’s nothing to do with what we can do or make in this life.

I am thinking about Lady Macbeth a lot, about the conflict between her independence and her being controlled, by society or by a male character. This project is also about seeing #Metoo in a different way. It’s not just a social media movement. It’s about practical, real change, in unique circumstances. I hope these women’s position as doctors in a war like the Syrian war starts a discussion.

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