The 2017 Edinburgh Film Festival premiered two films this summer focused on the Syrian civil war. The first was Philippe van Leeuw’s Insyriated, which tells the story of a family barricaded inside their home as war surrounds them. The second film was a documentary named Last Men in Aleppo directed by Firas Fayyad, focussing on the work of The White Helmets, a local search and rescue organisation. As I read their blurbs in the film guide, I wondered what these films could add to my understanding of the Syrian Civil War. What images could these films present to me that I hadn’t already seen time and time again on the news?
Perhaps the most important way in which these films provide new insight into the Syrian civil war is through their treatment of the civilian. Common perceptions of the civilian as a helpless entity are challenged head-on in both films. Last Men in Aleppo does this through its principle point of focus, Khaled Umar Harah. As the leader of the White Helmets, Khaled is on permanent standby awaiting calls to respond to the aftermath of military airstrikes. Through him, we are able to bare witness to the actions of the remaining community of Aleppo who take matters in their own hands to save innocent lives. The camera struggles to keep up with Khaled as he and his team rush through the city to rescue families buried beneath debris. In addition, these scenes are contrasted with scenes of rebirth and renovation. In the silent periods between airstrikes, Khaled enjoys time with his children alongside many other families who refuse to live under constant terror. The White Helmets commit their free time to building a garden, at the centre of which Khaled tends to a water fountain and goldfish. The civilians portrayed in Last Men in Aleppo are not helpless victims awaiting rescue. They are shown as a community actively engaged in their own survival.
Similarly, Insyriated illustrates the resilience of the average Syrian family. At the head of the household is Oum Yazan, a mother in charge of her elderly father, daughter-in-law and young children. As war rages around them, the family refuses to let their way of life be dictated by fear. In fact, many scenes throughout this film depict seemingly mundane parts of every-day life. The camera gently pans around the household as we quietly observe the elderly grandfather tutoring his grandson, followed by the older children cleaning and setting the table for dinner. The danger outside is ever-present, but life continues.
The central focus on civilians is also accentuated by the absence of soldiers from both of these films. While gunshots and explosions comprise a large part of the surrounding environment, there is no physical representation of an enemy. Our common understanding of the war in Syria, with fighting between many different fronts representing a range of political ideologies, is completely subverted by their lack of political engagement. In Last Men in Aleppo, only passing remarks are made referring to the nationalities of the jet planes flying above. Insyriated provides an even more striking example of this through its claustrophobic indoor setting, outside of which anyone is a potential threat. In effect, both films commit themselves to a project of depoliticising the turmoil of the Syrian people. Instead they choose to enter the lives and homes of innocent civilians caught in the middle of a never-ending crossfire.
While there may be no clear enemy, both films do not hesitate to throw the audience straight into the warzone. They share a sense of immediacy that asserts the on-going nature of this conflict, making it impossible to ignore. In brutally graphic scenes of death and violence, the camera does not shy away. While the news offers us short clips of the atrocities in Syria before swiftly moving on to the next hot topic, these films push the audience to face a lingering reality. In Last Men in Aleppo, the camera rests for uncomfortably long periods while Khaled and his team uncover body pieces and screaming children. Insyriated seems to address the viewer more directly during a scene in which intruders break into the family home and rape one of the women. While this scene drags on, the camera focuses on the family as they try to make the situation go away by closing their eyes. Here, it is made clear that the events unfolding in Syria will not go away by merely looking the other way and waiting for them to end.
The Syrian civil war is now well into its sixth year. Throughout this period, the conflict has drifted in and out of national focus, debating different topics from military intervention, international war crimes and terrorism. More recently, our attention has been directed towards the refugee crisis, questioning what measures should be taken with regard to the millions of Syrians fleeing the war. With each new topic comes a round of political debate. We form our own opinions and take our sides. In the background, news coverage relays images to which we have by now surely become desensitised: entire buildings reduced to rubble, motionless bodies and families in mourning.
Last Men in Aleppo and Insyriated attribute new meaning to these images. They amplify the voices of those who we assumed had none. Casting politics and nationality aside, these films concern themselves first and foremost with those who are too often overlooked. They form new representations of the Syrian people and show the will of the those who remain within the zones of conflict and who are willing to take charge and rebuild their own communities. Neither film makes a far-reaching final statement. Last Men in Aleppo finishes with the image of Khaled’s goldfish swimming in a bowl, surrounded by debris. Insyriated finishes as it began, with a close-up on the grandfather smoking a cigarette as he looks out the window into the distance. As we leave the cinema, and return to our lives, these films ensure that we remember that the war continues and there are many who must continue to fight for their survival and rebuild.