Syria's Knights in White Helmets Are Now Up for an Oscar

Distributed by Netflix, the movie portrays the White Helmets, whose volunteers scramble between Syrian cities to save people buried under the rubble of their homes.

Screen grab from "The White Helmets," a film distributed by Netflix and nominated for an Academy Award in the short documentary category.
Netflix/Screen grab

There is no happy ending yet. Khaled Hatib, a cinematographer, and Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets volunteer rescue organization, have received their coveted visas to the United States but until they set foot in the Land of Opportunity many bad things could happen.

Their professional patrons – movie producer Joanna Natasegara and documentary director Orlando von Einsiedel – were biting their nails and praying U.S. President Donald Trump won’t suddenly decide to issue a new executive order to shut out visa-holders from the seven predominantly Muslim countries stipulated in the old one.

Hatib and Saleh are not seeking refuge in the United States: They are nominees for an Academy Award for best documentary short subject for their film “The White Helmets,” filmed in Syria last year.

Distributed by Netflix, the movie is neither a war film nor a breath-taking work of art but rather a portrayal of the White Helmets, whose volunteers scramble between Syrian cities to save people buried under the rubble of their homes, to pull out babies from piles of dirt and concrete blocks, to provide first aid, and to help rehabilitate water and electricity infrastructure in ravaged neighborhoods.

It is sufficient to watch the trailer to glean an impression of the difficult conditions under which the volunteers operate. They hurry about with their stretchers to save lives between the collapsed walls and flying bullets. About 120 of their members have been killed in recent years, among them Khaled Omar, known as the “miracle baby rescuer" in Aleppo, after pulling an infant out at the very last moment from the ruins of his home, in 2014. Omar was killed last year in an airstrike. The child is healthy and living in Turkey.

Hatib, the cinematographer, spent weeks in Turkey while British film director Franklin Dow taught him about the genre of documentary films, and he accompanied White Helmets volunteers who were being trained by the local Akut Search and Rescue Association. (Akut was founded in 1996 to save trapped mountain climbers and skiers, and has since become an international center for helping rescue organizations.)

For their part, the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, have saved over 80,000 lives since it began operations in 2012, according to aid organization reports. The NGO was established that year after a Syrian Air Force attack on Syrian civilians. Within two years it became a national center for civil defense activities.

Screen grab from "The White Helmets," a film distributed by Netflix and nominated for an Academy Award in the short documentary category.
Netflix

Today the group, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last year, boasts 3,300 volunteers operating over 110 centers around Syria. The growing number of volunteers includes teenagers like Hatib, who started filming the horrifying civil war when he was 16.

As of today, the bloody war in Syria has yet to inspire a feature film, nor has any novel yet sprouted from the ruins it is leaving behind. The warfare in this country is still documentary material, and it will probably take a lot of time until someone will be able to make a feature film that can be screened there. Lebanon waited over a decade after its civil war ended until a feature was produced about what went on.

Today most Syrian movie houses are closed, and the most important directors of the country's magnificent cinema industry are in exile in Europe or Turkey.

Still, it turns out there is some life among death. Witness the celebration last week of Valentine’s Day in the Syrian capital. Stores were decorated; stuffed "love bears," costing $50-$100 each, as well as $7 roses of Damascus were sold. Bakeries charged $23 for a cake. But only the rich could permit themselves to enjoy the celebration. A family that wanted to mark the holiday with a stay in the Sheraton Hotel had to pay over $4,500 – in a country where the minimum wage is $150 a month. Red gas cans were on sale in one store, a good gift idea in a city where fuel is scarce.

A frame from Netflix's 'The White Helmets.'
Netflix

In general in Damascus, the red-light districts continue to do business as usual, and dozens of rather disreputable nightclubs – in which girls from Russia, Iraq and Lebanon are employed – are open in the suburb of Jurmana. Complaints by residents about the lawlessness of such enterprises have been to no avail. It turns out that government officials and senior officers run the clubs, and their clients are pro-Assad militia fighters.

While the White Helmets volunteers show the human face of the war, in which half a million people have been killed and millions have become refugees, the war profiteers and their minions continue to reap huge sums. It is almost impossible to make a documentary film about these individuals. They closely guard the areas under their control, operate the nightspots and provide the alcohol and the prostitutes.

A Syrian prosecutor may speak of thousands of cases involving such lawless individuals, as if the law enforcement system still worked, but today it is the street that determines the law – at least in Damascus, where good-hearted volunteers work alongside pimps.

Screen grab from "The White Helmets," a film distributed by Netflix and nominated for an Academy Award in the short documentary category.
Netflix/Screen grab