Jun 152017

Last Men in Aleppo

Set amidst the rubble of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, this tremendously powerful portrait of White Helmet civilian volunteers was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Though an unfortunate product of the Syrian Civil War atrocities, viewed as a work of vital on-the-ground reporting this is an extraordinary achievement. Not interested in glorifying the heroics, or showering a viewer with all the gruesome images, but in simply in telling it how it is, this film is humane, gripping and heartbreakingly sad.

As the Russian missiles fall across the Aleppo war zone – Syria’s largest city becomes the symbol of Bashar al-Assad’s war against the rebels opposing his government – the physically exhausted, unarmed and poorly equipped troupe of aid volunteers get the call to scour the rubble in search for survivors. It is haunting viewing (emphasised by the score) and director Feras Fayyad, in a collaboration with Danish filmmaker Steed Johannessen and the Aleppo Media Centre, records, via privileged and professionally dangerous access, the traumas and the emotional struggles of these brave everyday heroes. With the distressing coverage of the rubble scouring and the excavation of expired youngsters (mostly) we are offered intimate insight into the psychology of these men as they share dialogue and have rare moments of comfort to balm their stresses – with the next tragedy emerging from the horizon.

Fayyad achieves greatness here, by tempering a pair of dramatic arcs – the stories of White Helmets’ Khaled and Mahmoud – by balancing their desperate rescue efforts with details of their attempts to recreate a sense of normalcy. Khaled is a father torn between fleeing with his children and his duty to the White Helmets. Mahmoud visits a family that he help save from the debris, and at one point is caught up in an attack where his brother is almost killed. This harrowing and depressingly haunting document spotlights the courage and resilience of these men, whose personally-unfathomable optimism of a brighter future for Syria begins to be broken down with each fresh bombing raid, and who admirably maintain a sense of duty to the community and the city they remain proud to call home.

Roller Dreams

It was the year 1984, and on the boardwalk of Venice Beach, California, young people of colour were seeking refuge from the turmoil of inner city life. They would flock to the eclectic ocean community to create a brand new phenomenon: roller dancing. The talent and vibrant personality of this multicultural roller ‘family’ transformed the pastime into an art form and drew massive crowds of appreciative spectators. But politics and gentrification would conspire to end the dream. Australian filmmaker Kate Hickey’s energetic documentary turns the lens on this exciting subculture; injecting blast from the past archival footage with a respectful interrogation and colourful stylistic flourishes.

At the centre of the film – and the catalyst for the boom and the unofficial delegate for the eventual dismantling of the art at its height – is Mad, a smooth-moving, physically-perfect icon who took the eager youngsters under his wing, established a reputation of leadership and respect, and forged a culture of integration, collaboration and pride for the art. When the hotspot became a target of racially-charged police crackdowns, Mad was chief rebel.

For a large part of the film Mad remains a silent spectre in the background – there didn’t seem to be many videos of him and I expected that he had passed in the years since (I feared tragically) – as fellow skaters Jimmy, Larry and Sally and others tell their skating origin stories, and share their experiences with the man touted as the ‘Godfather’ of roller dancing. But, eventually, the film directs its focus to Mad – a man who has hung up the skates for good and never looked back. The loss of dancing has continued to pain him all these years, but he has applied his natural charisma and sensible wisdom to every endeavour in his adult life. Reluctant to revisit the past Mad is coerced into returning to Venice Beach to lead one final line with his former proteges. It is a powerful image; to see the man reduced to tears when confronted with the past, considering the life he never led.