Orlando von Einsiedel – The White Helmets (2016)
Oscar winner for BEST DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)
As daily air strikes pound civilian targets in Syria, a group of indomitable first responders risk their lives to rescue victims from the rubble.
More than five years after the conflict began in Syria It is estimated that at least 470,000 people have died – a figure that shockingly equates to more than one in every ten Syrians. On the ground in the country, the population are mostly having to do what they can, a situation that has given rise to emergency organisation The White Helmets. They have so far saved more than 82,000 lives.
The men forming these squads, who dash from bomb site to bomb site in search of survivors, mostly have no experience and come from professions as diverse as blacksmith and teacher. Like this year’s Sundance documentary Grand Jury Prize winner Last Men In Aleppo, director Orlando Von Einsiedel’s Oscar-winning film immerses us immediately in the chaotic aftermath of a bombing in Aleppo. We see a team rescuing people and recovering bodies from the rubbles as we begin to hear the stories of some of these unsung heroes.
The men – including Khalid Farah, Abu Omar and Abu Zaid – speak to camera about the work they do, their motivations and their hopes for their own children’ future. Einsiedel has shown aptitude with complex situations and conflict before in his feature Virunga and shows a tight control of ‘story’ here, taking us out of the warzone to a training camp in Turkey, where the men spend a month learning how to use listening devices and honing other skills. The ordered routine of these lessons allows the horror of the war to be shown in relief.
“What’s the most important thing? Safety,” they are told, words that sound hollow when you consider the constant barrel-bomb bombardment being faced by civilians back in their homeland. The ‘cleanness’ of these exercises is also in stark contrast to the film of the team working in Aleppo, where clouds of dust, chaos and the emotional trauma make rescues all the more difficult. The scenes of the rescuers in their off-hours show the long reach of the war, with the night’s spent anxiously watching television news of the bombardment or phoning family and friends to make sure they’re alive.
“Life requires sacrifice,” says one of the men, but the film surely asks us whether this conflict really requires all this child and civilian bloodshed. A twist in the tale came shortly before the Oscars when it was announced that cameraman and White Helmet Khaled Khatib would not be able to attend because, despite having a US visa, the Syrian government has cancelled his passport. His is only one story of a person being prevented from leaving the country, but it serves as a reminder of just how many more are stuck, wondering if the next bomb will fall on them or their family.
— Amber Wilkinson (EyeForFilm.co.uk)
Forget Oscar: Give The White Helmets the Leni Riefenstahl Award for Best War Propaganda Film
Subtitles:English, French, Italian, Spanish (muxed)