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'The White Helmets made me believe in humanity'

Neil King
March 15, 2017

Firas Fayyad endured prison, torture and bombing in his home country. The Syrian-born filmmaker talks to DW about his latest documentary, "Last men in Aleppo," which focuses on the rescuers known as the White Helmets.

Filmstill  "Last men in Aleppo"
Image: Last men in Aleppo

Documenting Aleppo's rescuers

DW: You were arrested twice around the beginning of the Syrian war, after documenting the civil uprising and street protests. Were you tortured in prison?

Firas Fayyad: Yes, I was tortured and quite violently. The guards in the prison told me: "You'll have double the amount of torture because you're a filmmaker." They blindfolded me and I was held three floors below ground. They wanted information from me and because they knew I'd studied in Europe and they thought I was working for one of those countries.

They thought you were a spy?

Yes, it's part of this big lie that the Syrian authorities use about the West - that the West is our enemy and Israel is our enemy. And when you grow up in this environment, you know that they are always trying to control your lives and everything around you. Even when you travel outside of Syria, as a professional, they follow you and try to maintain control. And it's scary because a lot of other artists and journalists have been killed under torture.

Syrien Zerstörung
Much of Aleppo was destroyed during years of bombingsImage: picture alliance/dpa/A. Muhammed

It sounds like a harrowing experience that would have broken many people. But you managed to get out of prison and leave Syria. You're now in Denmark. How have you managed to carry on? 

Firstly, I didn't manage to leave Syria, I was forced to leave my country, my city and my house because I got threats that I'd be killed or arrested again. My family was also forced to leave their homes. I always blame myself for that. A lot of other artists and filmmakers are in a similar situation.

Now you're living in Denmark. Do you feel safe now?

No, because since making this film, "Last men in Aleppo," I've been getting a lot of threatening messages. They told me: "We can find you, wherever you are."

Are you taking any precautions?

I never write where I'm living or where I go or anything like that.

Your documentary isn't a political film about the war. Instead you focus on the personal stories of two of the main protagonists, Khalid and Mahmoud, who work for the White Helmets. Why did you choose this personal approach?

When you meet these people you ask yourself what has made them sacrifice their souls to help others. What about their own safety? What about their families? This is the inner conflict between their responsibility toward their families and the responsibility of their job. They made me believe in humanity in the middle of this crazy war.

Filmvorführung "Last men in Aleppo"
The film told the personal stories of Khalid (pictured) and MahmoudImage: Last men in Aleppo

And I wanted to explain that the White Helmets is about much more than putting a helmet on and running toward scenes of destruction. It's a belief from inside that they have to do this because it's their choice and they need to protect people. I wanted to show the personal destruction inside these people, the loss of a generation, and the people these humanitarians leave behind - children, brothers, families.

What was the hardest part for you personally about filming in Aleppo?

The most challenging part was having the protagonists participating in the story. Because for them, the war and what they do is just for their people. They think that if they're in a movie they will feel come across like a showoff. And I tried to show that also. There's a scene when Mahmoud goes to visit one of the victims he saved. And he said, "I didn't like that, I'm not going to visit anyone again because I feel like this is showing off, showing these people that I saved their lives and I'm not like that."

But you were also risking your life weren't you? There were bombs falling, bodies being pulled from the rubble as you followed the White Helmets around. How exposed did you feel?

Feras Fayyad
Firas Fayyad's film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film FestivalImage: Getty Images/Sundance Film Festival/M. Loccisano

It was very hard sometimes just to have a camera and to film and follow the characters. At one point the barrel bombs fell just a couple of meters away from us and I was thrown to the ground. When I woke up it was like a heavy dream. I couldn't understand what was going on around me. It was just like fog. I didn't know if I was alive or dead. And this was another reason that made me believe even more that I had to make this film.

Some people have criticized the film as being a little bit one-sided because it doesn't touch upon the fact that there were rebel groups inside Aleppo that also inflicted suffering on the civilian population and yet your film only focuses on the bombing of the city by Assad forces and his Russian allies. What do you make of this sort of criticism?

First, I didn't focus just on Assad and the Russians. I showed a car bombed from within the city and because I don't have the full information about whether this bombing was by Isis ["Islamic State"] or al-Qaeda, I just [focused on] what Khalid told me when he was running to the scene. Of course there were bad groups in Aleppo which also made the people's lives bad, but not as bad as the Russian and Assad bombing. That was the main enemy for the civilians. I just told the story my camera captured.

There's also a noticeable absence of women in the film. Why?

I asked the wife of Khalid and she rejected to be part of this movie. In Aleppo, only men work in the White Helmets. In other cities there are women working in the White Helmets. My next movie will be about women, but not about the White Helmets.

This week is the sixth anniversary of the war in Syria and the international community has so far failed to bring about a peace deal. What gives you hope that peace will return to Syria one day?

What's happened with people who have also sacrificed their lives also makes me hopeful, and makes me feel like a lot of people are standing with us.

We need governments in different countries to think more about Syrian suffering and to take serious action to stop this war and find a solution. But a solution should be linked to justice - that means taking all these criminals to court. And with this movie, "Last men in Aleppo," that'll help push the idea that we have to end this conflict and stop the suffering - because the situation is clear. The goodness is very clear and the badness is very clear. This is not something that is mixed and not understood. It's very well understood where the right is and what is wrong when in Syria.

Firas Fayyad is a Syrian born journalist and filmmaker. His most recent film, "Last men in Aleppo," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it took home the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category. Firas Fayyad is currently based in Denmark.

The interview was conducted by Neil King for DW's radio show and podcast WorldLink - the personal stories behind the headlines. It has been edited for length and clarity.