The White Helmets
Director: Orlando Von Einsiedel
Synopsis: A volunteer team of civilian first responders risk their lives in regime controlled Syria by running into the ruins of bombed buildings to save survivors.
Overview: It feels simultaneously as if there is so much that needs to be said about The White Helmets but also that Orlando Von Einsiedel’s slimly-directed film says all that it needs to. In the past decade, since at least 2008’s Waltz With Bashir, socially conscious documentaries have been as artful and constructively complex as ever, but The White Helmets, while dealing with perhaps the most immediately imperative subject matter of any documentary of global concern in the 2000s, is rather simple. There isn’t much more than observation and interviews, the most basic documentary approach of all. And at just a (still heart-wrenching) 40 minutes, there isn’t even much of that.
Largely, this is because the exceptionality in this story, both the inspiring and the disheartening, needn’t be gazed upon too long to be understood. The White Helmets, a titular volunteer civilian organization whose purpose is to rescue survivors for the ruins of buildings that have just been bombed by airstrike in Aleppo City in war-torn Syria, is not comprised of paid or traditionally trained rescue workers. They are former blacksmiths, builders, tailors whose world has been ruined beyond a need for their trades. Since 2011, the reality in which they live is one recognizable from the Western, American perspective as a hellscape. It’s not just the rubble, the blood, or the bodies. Von Einsiedel establishes shots of the men looking into clear blue skies anticipating attack. We see families of victims using social media to learn of the deaths of their loved ones. We see a child recognize the lifeless body of his father and a newborn pulled from rubble after 18 hours of being trapped.
The White Helmets is not an apolitical film, even as its opening and closing title cards carefully avoid mentioning any governing or sovereign body involved in the conflict that inflicts damage upon the citizens of Aleppo. There is no approaching this subject, cinematically or conversationally, in a way that avoids politics. In the chaos of explosions, enough is said in reaction to paint a picture, to suggest allegiance or to appeal to political sympathy.
But even if the film were wordless, for Americans, awareness of the current election cycle would be enough to infuse political weight. The White Helmets was released simultaneous to our own sitting president’s appeal to the world to do better at addressing the crisis by allowing Syrian citizens refuge (currently, only 10 nations are accepting Syrian refugees), to the Republican Party’s candidate pushing a platform of suspending civil liberties and constitutional principles to disallow Syrian refugees within American borders, and to a third party candidate exposing his poor qualifications for the office by not recognizing the name of Aleppo, the central city in the conflict.
But The White Helmets offers a perspective even more important than those of our leaders and potential leaders, one that, we can hope, both sides should agree upon. “Any human being, no matter who they are or which side they’re on, if they need our help, it’s our duty to save them,” explains Abu Omar, a member of the White Helmets. “All lives are precious and valuable; a child, even if he is not my son, is like my son,” his teammate Mohammad Farah explains later. These are the words of those on the front line of the devastation, the victims and the heroes, an organization that has to date saved roughly 60,000 lives. That these men, who have seen the worst of humanity, can offer a sentiment of pure compassion and unconditional benevolence in spite of everything is a dizzying measure of scale, one that reinforces a faith in humanity and reminds us that the soulless machinations of politics are engineered by those who do not suffer politics’ real consequences.
Featured Image: Netflix