Overpriced coffee is a staple of life in a big American city, a small indulgence enjoyed by those living comfortably enough to afford five-dollar cold brews. But for Syrian filmmaker Firas Fayyad, sitting at a trendy Koreatown café on a hot Saturday in Los Angeles, the cup he's cradling provokes feelings of guilt about having left his homeland for his safety. "I feel guilty being alive, and drinking coffee, and listening to music," he says.
Fayyad is here to discuss his new documentary, which focuses on a group of average citizens who not only stayed in his home country in the midst of the Syrian Civil War—they formed a volunteer disaster rescue team to aid its victims. The White Helmets, as they are now known, run toward danger in order to save those caught in the rubble left by bombings carried out by the Syrian government and foreign powers on civilians. Fayyad centers his narrative on a handful of these heroes, and particularly a man identified only as Khaled, who has two children and debates whether to leave his country or remain in the fight.
Fayyad got the idea for the film while he was in prison, enduring torture, he says. The director was arrested two times in Syria, enduring prison sentences of three and eight months, respectively, for making films that denounced the government's prosecution of free expression. Fayyad says he fought despair while incarcerated by formulating a sense of purpose to expose the Bashar al-Assad regime's crackdown on dissidents. "I thought: 'I have to do something, I have a responsibility to the people inside the prison. I’m alive. I survived. I have to show these crimes.'"
He wasn't sure anyone beyond his cell and his country's borders would care. But, if the reception to Last Men in Aleppo is any indication, they have: The film took home the Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, among many other prizes. Following its theatrical release stateside in May, the film was recently on the No. 1 position of the iTunes chart for documentaries. It will premiere on the PBS series POV tonight.
Over coffee in Koreatown, Pacific Standard talked with Fayyad about shooting a documentary in a war zone, counterbalancing headlines to the Syrian crisis with his story, and the renewed hope he feels when viewers connect emotionally with his work.
Tell me a little bit about how the film got started for you.
The process of making this movie was almost four years long, from 2013 to 2016. I started it directly after I got out of prison; it was almost a reflection of what I saw in prison. I felt like: I have a responsibility, I have to do something, I have a responsibility to the people inside the prison, [because] I'm alive, I survived. I have to show these crimes.
I was in prison because I made other films. I did a film about freedom of speech, about a poetry writer who was forced to flee Syria in the 1970s. With the beginning of the revolution in Syria, I started to continue to shoot a movie called On the Other Side. I was arrested because of this movie. In our country with a dictatorship, if you say no, or say something against the dictatorship, you get arrested. It's the normal way.
You knew those were the consequences?
Yeah. And then, after I got out of prison in 2013, I started this movie. All that time, in my mind was the voice of the [prison interrogator] when he told me, "You're not going to get out of here, you're not going to see the light, or see your future."
You try, all the time in prison, to do something with your life, thinking about your future in your mind. These are your tools, using your imagination and your memories. In 2013, this is all noise in my mind, and I [thought,] this is about volunteers who rescue people, who try to protect their neighborhood, and their neighbors and friends. When the bombs started falling daily, these people started to organize themselves, and I was following them, and I had many questions about them: What makes people do that? What makes them sacrifice their lives? What makes other lives more important than their own lives? What did they leave behind?
I was watching the international media, how they talk about Syria. They call it, in very shiny titles, a "complicated situation." We don't know who killed who, we don't know who is the victim or the killer, we don't know what's going on. [When] I started shooting with these people, [I thought,] I'll tell a story that's not a political story, not just about an international conflict, not just about ISIS and the regime and this complicated situation: It's about people fighting for their use of the human life, for their love of life.
I decided to follow multiple characters who I found in 2014. I collaborated with a local cinematographer. We felt that we could do a good story, because we know the area, and we know what's going on. We [collaborated] with a group called Aleppo Media Center, which is [comprised of] citizen journalists and cinematographers and video journalists, working for international media like CNN and others. The first conversation was about doing responsible work, not just a story to make people enjoy it, or a story of theater, or a story to run around [in,] and enjoy in your time as a filmmaker. It should be a story about what you saw, and how we can change: A story about how we can use the power of the evidence, the crime that we recorded, the crime of the Russians and the Assad regime against humanity in Syria, and how we can use that as real evidence, and document it.
Do you think journalism has failed to show the world what is happening in Syria?
The [media] have thousands of new stories [to tell] around the world, not just in Syria. There's Somalia, there's Yemen, there's others. So they can't be close to the human beings of Syria, and see how the war is affecting Syrians, and their feeling of losing hope. I can try to record the character, and tell the story, and get the camera really close, and use cinematic tools.
Not all of the media has tried to explain what is going on in Syria, to tell people that these are people forced to leave their country, and they have been fighting to the last minute, and that they have tried everything to stay, but they are going to lose their lives. Should they stay behind and be killed, or survive with their children to rebuild Syria, and not leave it for ISIS or al-Qaeda or jihadists around the world? What is the best choice? Of course, the best choice is to survive with your children, and come back to your country to rebuild it, to do something and change the reality.
What do you think of the other films about the Syrian Civil War that have come out recently, like City of Ghosts and The White Helmets? Do you think it's a good thing that the story is being told in different ways?
Even telling thousands of stories about Syria is important, because it's not a Syrian subject. It's an international war, and there are victims all over the world. I'm not going to look at every film in a critical way, and say, "This is the story we should tell," and which story and which character. This is not my role. We should keep going, because this is history writing. Now we have new different tools to write history, and this is our way to write it.
Watching the film is difficult, because it feels like you and the other cameramen were risking your lives to get these images. There's a sequence where you're being shot at. What goes through your mind in the middle of something like that?
I'm going to highlight one of the cinematographers, Thaer Mohamad, because he was almost killed. One day, he was following [one of the film's protagonists,] Mahmoud. The day before, I told him, "You can't go to any place that you might get killed, because we need to continue this film and other films." The next day, he followed Mahmoud to the front line in Aleppo, and they were attacked by the Iranian-Russian-Syrian forces that control the front line. He was very close to being killed, but he captured the moment. He fell down, but he kept recording, and then he's running, and you hear his breathing.
You have to record what's going on, because when you die, this is evidence that you died for something important in your life. You recorded life, you recorded what's going on around you, and you can make changes with what you do.
Even though the civil war is raging around them, every character still finds time to have sort of a normal life. They're going to weddings, they're spending time with their children.
This was a great lesson for me. We have a scene where [the White Helmets] finish a rescue, and they enjoy a cigarette and drink water; they just relax and enjoy their special time, take a break, and then they go to continue their social duty. This is what they do; they have to continue and deal with the destruction around them. This is a film about how these people are dealing with all of these horrible circumstances. They hope to continue, and to stay, to say: "This is our country, it's not for the foreigner, it's our country, it will continue with us, and we're not going to leave it by choice. If we leave, it's because we're forced to leave." I tried to show that the people don't have in their mind a plan to leave. [Despite] everything around that would show you that they're going to leave, they're going to stay.
How does it make you feel when someone like the president of the United States makes it clear he doesn't don't want to take refugees including those from Syria? How does that make you feel about the West?
This is not just in the West; it's in Arab countries. It's all over the world. But I trust in the power of the people. I feel that, when I show Last Men in Aleppo, the people come and watch it, and then they shake my hand or hug me and say: "This is more than just about Syria, it's about responsibility. It is these people who make the country great, not someone in a politician's position." [Politicians] can't do anything without the power of the people, that's the important thing. That makes you feel like you can change something.
The Syrian authorities are happy when we hide the information and stories, but when you show the stories and information, you're doing the right thing. I'm talking about the role of the media and filmmaking and art.
Do you think cinema can actually inspire people to help?
Of course. At Sundance, a man who was a Marine fighter, he came up to me and said: "What do you think about the criminals who killed those children? I'm one of them." And then he started to cry. He shook my hand and started to cry, and asked: "What can I do? I'm the reason behind killing those children—what can I do?" This is what cinema can do; it can change your mind and make you cry. It's an act of changing inside you. It can clean your body, as a human, and [make you] want to do something to change the world around you.
One thing that I found very interesting and powerful was that you decided to make all of the White Helmets co-directors of the film. Why did you make that decision?
Because this is their story, more than my story as a filmmaker. I set up my story all about the relations between [people], about friendship and brotherhood, about human beings. As a documentary filmmaker, when you make documentaries, all of the effort is by these people, these characters, more than you, the filmmaker sitting behind the camera recording everything. When they decided to participate, they trusted me, and that trust allows me to make tell this story.
What are your memories of Syria before the war?
I grew up in an environment of dictatorship, so I don't remember anything good about Syria. I just remember sitting next to my family, my father and mother. Syria was, for 50 years, under the control of a dictator, first the father [Hafez al-Assad] and then the son [Bashar al-Assad]. What they did was take our freedom of speech and freedom of expression, so we tried to create a Syrian underground, a place for alcohol, for dancing, for talking politics, shooting film and television dramas. This was Syria undercover, but Syria out in the real world was controlled by the dictatorship. Life was not easy, but you tried, you stayed, and you continued your life. Syria was one of the best countries in the Middle East, and when you went to Damascus, it felt like you were in Los Angeles. [But] if you started to do any act against the government, you would get arrested.
In a sense, the government is more afraid of cinema and people telling their stories, than of guns.
You can tell any story—a love story, a sexy story—but not about the regime. We had a strong [entertainment] industry: We produced 40 to 45 TV dramas in a year, and it was very famous in the Arab world. We had a lot of famous actors, and there's a Syrian actor working in Hollywood now, Jay Abdo, who was with Werner Herzog and Nicole Kidman in his last film, [The Queen of the Desert]. He's a refugee in the United States because Assad destroyed his career and forced him to leave.
In Syria, the TV drama industry was [most] famous. There was not strong funding [for cinema], or the funding was coming from Denmark. It was good fun, you can do a film with two or three million, but only what the authorities decide. You write a script, and if you make the authorities happy, you can do whatever you want; but if you write what you want, you won't get anything. For lots of people, they couldn't [get anything], but the industry was really good, and we enjoyed what we were doing. We enjoyed making TV dramas, music videos, and short movies, but most of us started leaving to Dubai to do TV dramas there. Those were our limited choices in doing the stories we wanted.
What are you doing next? Are you working on something now?
I'm doing another film about Syria, and another story outside of Syria, but you can't start two documentaries together, so they're at different levels. The next one, about Syria, is about to start filming, and for the other one I'm in development and research. It's a story from outside of Syria, about freedom of speech and human rights, about a French ambassador on a mission to visit 20 countries to support human rights and be a witness to crimes happening in different countries.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.