Film Review by Ariana Akbari
The camera shakes, and dust clouds the screen. People appear as shapeless, moving blotches of black and khaki. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” are heard, (a phrase which translates to “God is greater” and is more infamous as a cry of joy for jihadis, but which can also be an everyday expression of grief and outrage) followed by the deafening crash of a bomb blast. Half of a breath later, another bomb hits. More people appear — this time in a group — wearing what looks like the hardhats and reflective yellow vests, more commonly seen in the U.S. on roadside construction workers.
“The White Helmets” is a British documentary directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and produced by Joanna Natasegara. It won its category for best documentary (short subject) at the 89th Academy Awards on Feb. 26, 2017 and is being lauded as one of the most important films of the year.
Von Einsiedel and Natasegara set out to capture the astounding heroics of a group of civilian volunteers who are officially called the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), but are more colloquially referred to, per their uniform, as the “White Helmets.” Throughout the film, we follow members of the group as they share with us the trials and tribulations they face daily in rescuing the citizens of Syria.
We, the viewers, are introduced to Aleppo, a city which prior to the Syrian Civil War was the country’s most-populated. Now, the city displays little of its former vibrancy; there are holes in the streets where dirty rainwater pools, tarps cover the facades of great sand-colored buildings. The morning silence is broken only by a distant revving of a motor scooter and the too-frequent barrel bombs dropped by Russian planes. Horrors and miracles are shown occurring in Aleppo in equal measure: A child is seen crying out to his bearded father, near-dead and bleeding heavily on a stretcher. He implores him, futilely, “Please dad, don’t leave me!” In the next scene, an infant buried under layers of heavy piles of rubble for nearly 16 hours, is heard crying, alive, and is pulled free.
Von Einsidel and Natasegara deliver a film that speaks volumes louder and longer than its 40-minute runtime. To many of us living lives so far away from places of warfare, “The White Helmets” is a reminder that we must not forget our globally shared humanity. The only difference between a morning in America and a morning in Syria, is that in Syria, a breakfast can be interrupted by a bombing. There is no place that is safe from an airstrike — hospitals, schools and apartment complexes all are equally vulnerable. It is inspiring to see people, former tailors and builders with little experience in rescue operations, taking action in a way that has saved more than 80,000 lives since 2014. Through their love for their country and the future of its citizens, the White Helmets have been transformed into modern-day superheroes, and they serve as a bright spot of hope not only for Syrians but for the world.
Ariana Akbari studies international government at Harvard University, where she is interested in the intersection of human rights and film & media.