Academy Award-winning documentary short The White Helmets (2016), from London-based Orlando von Einsiedel does what many news reports have failed to do in the Syrian crisis. It humanizes the suffering of Syrian people, caught in a hellhole.
While the international community has largely failed the Syrians, a group of self-sacrificing men have proved that humanity isn’t wholly dead.
Known as ‘The White Helmets,’ the men of Syria Civil Defense have been pulling out thousands of people out of the rubble since 2013. A rough estimate says 60,000 civilians.
As the documentary’s distressing opening sequence shows, they are the first people to respond after a bombing raid, transporting young boys and girls in orange stretchers.
Netflix’ original The White Helmets rightfully avoids voice-overs to let the men on the ground speak for their experiences. The White Helmets has nearly 3,000 volunteers, who risk their lives daily to rescue people from the world’s most dangerous war zone.
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The documentary follows the travails of three men – a former tailor, blacksmith, and a builder. They work in the same unit, based on Aleppo. Von Einsiedel and his crew didn’t travel to Syria. But, they interviewed these men when they received volunteer training in Southern Turkey.
The recovered raw footage is powerful enough to haunt the international community’s conscience.
Nevertheless, The White Helmets isn’t just about destruction, suffering, and death. The brave rescuers possess and give abundance of hope.
Amidst all the blood, they also discover some miracles. In one immensely moving episode, we see White Helmets pull a tiny baby out of the rubble. After searching for buried people among huge debris for 16 straight hours, the volunteers were about to give up. A baby’s cry, however, made the men re-search the dilapidated area. When they eventually unearthed the baby (less than a month old), alive, everyone’s faces was streaked with tears.
The ‘miracle baby’ Mahmoud makes a brief appearance towards the documentary’s ending. The little boy playing football reassures us that humanity still has something great to offer.
The documentary and the ‘White Helmets’ organization is also facing some controversies and allegations. A well-researched article from Global Research questions the one-sided depiction of events in Syria to weave a pro-rebel narrative. The serious allegation against the NGO is that not all of its volunteers are innocent civilians.
The White Helmets was said to be vigorously promoted by New-York based marketing company (the name also coined by them) to voice out the ‘regime change’ opinion (as if the US backed ‘rebels’ are the most peaceful lot). Whether or not the White Helmets are a ploy of western media and its politicians to secure its stand against Assad regime (and its Russian backers), one can’t definitely undermine the life-threatening mission carried out by the Syrian men.
The political complexities behind-the-screen will unravel in due time. But for now, the world needs to see this harrowing documentary/short.
By Arun Kumar
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’