In the chaos of war-torn Syria, unarmed and neutral civilian volunteers known as "the white helmets" comb through the rubble after bombings to rescue survivors. Although they have already saved more than 60,000 lives since 2013, these brave first responders continue to place themselves in danger every day.
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Perhaps the greatest power of the documentary genre is its ability to restore reality to scenarios too unbelievable to otherwise conceive. In the case of the Syrian civil war, this means returning empathy to a situation to which we are in danger of becoming numb to the point of apathetic. With this conflict having featured on global news feeds constantly for half a decade, it seems that the only way to re-sensitise ourselves to the horror of this war and renew social efforts to bring it to an end is to come face to face with its unrelenting and indiscriminate cruelty. Short documentary ‘The White Helmets’ accomplishes this and in doing so is able to provide something very unexpected – hope.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara, following up their 2014 Academy Award nomination for feature documentary ‘Virunga’, re-awaken us to the horrors of the Syrian conflict by presenting the aftermath of devastating airstrikes with unflinching focus. As we follow the members of the Syrian Civil Defence, otherwise known as the White Helmets into action, the seamlessness with which Einsiedel is able to blend the chaos of the environment with the discipline of an experienced visual storyteller, pushes the audience without warning and without reprieve into the hellish world that so many victims of this conflict still call ‘home’.
As with any effectively told story, our primary point of focus is on character. We follow members of the White Helmets through their family lives, stories of former professions, in one case, even a history of armed conflict as a member of the opposition forces. The overarching principle that brings all of these disparate lives together is the realisation that, while various forces fight for control of Syria and Aleppo in particular, the country’s shattered infrastructure leaves almost no one to protect the wounded and vulnerable. It is this stark reality above any other that causes these otherwise normal and recognisable people to go charging towards exploding bombs instead of away from them.
Outside of the subjects themselves, the dedication of the filmmakers is also in evidence. Von Einsiedel does not waste a frame of material, whether it is the meticulous details captured in the home lives of the volunteers or showing every shattered building, bomb crater and pile of rubble. Helmet-mounted cameras belonging to one of the White Helmets themselves contribute considerable amounts of material to covering the immediate aftermath of the airstrikes. These incredible pictures are carefully integrated into Von Einsiedel's capturing of the volunteers during a month long training session, which reverses the perspective of the film from those caught in conflict to those waiting for news of their loved ones. By remaining on the journey with the select number of volunteers that film chooses to cover, we are given a layered, if limited experience of the emotional and literal shockwaves of this conflict.
See an interview and Q&A with Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara on 'Build' below.
Like fellow nominee ‘4.1 Miles’, von Einsiedel chooses not to identify a political enemy with ‘The White Helmets’, but instead he opts to focus on the ‘whom’ and ‘why’ of the individuals who form this voluntary organisation. We follow the volunteers through rescues, training and going from being on the front lines to being abroad awaiting news of family caught up in further air strikes. As a result, the film is able to use the ever-present threat of total destruction to frame a very human narrative.
This is often uncomfortable viewing to be sure. Von Einsiedel does not shy away from any aspect of these volunteers’ lives, be they harrowing or intimate. We endure seeing these ordinary human beings cope with losing parents and children one moment then rejoice with them as they rescue babies that have survived for 16 hours under collapsed buildings the next.
While the genuine drama of this story can easily be romanticised (George Clooney is reportedly working on a feature film) the film grounds itself in the day-to-day decision-making of people who would otherwise be builders or plumbers. The result is that the audience is able to immerse themselves into a situation that they might otherwise have been unable to conceive of.
The greatest accomplishment of ‘The White Helmets’ is its ability to transcend casualty numbers and aerial shots of bombed out skylines. Its resistance to the temptation to elevate its subjects to hero status is the very thing that bestows that status upon them. The magnitude of the conflict is not diminished by their acts, but they and the filmmakers serve to remind us that even in the face of devastation such as this, any one of us can be the difference between life and death.
Catch ‘The White Helmets’ on Netflix now.
Click here to read the Hollywood Reporter interview with Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara. You can also click here to find out more about the White Helmets.