Picture this: you’re looking through the POV of an unknown individual running toward a destroyed building. Chaos is all around him; people are screaming and running in all directions, but then he continues to run forward. As he gets closer, the chaos spirals into desperation and despair as others are helping the injured or trying to get to safety. The man slows to see a group of dust-covered men carrying and attempting to tend to a young boy with blood flowing from his head. This focus is disrupted by a sudden new sense of fear as the air is filled with an unmistakable humming sound. An explosion knocks the man to the ground as dust, debris, and wounded civilians fill the building.
“The White Helmets” (2016) by Orlando von Einsiedel is a riveting documentary that follows a group of Syrian volunteer rescue workers of the same name who respond to highly dangerous situations, attempting to rescue their fellow countrymen. These volunteers risk their lives to try to extract anyone from areas affected by the war and provide whatever aid they can. Their main responsibility is to respond to airstrikes in the city, which can indiscriminately injure or kill civilian bystanders and damage buildings. The squad of “White Helmets” responds to these disasters, performs training, and reflects upon their service during the documentary.
The gritty and point of view “on-mission” style gives the viewer a sense of being shoulder-to-shoulder with the rescue team and all of the emotions tied into such a demanding job. The director also did an amazing job tying this mission footage with one-on-one interviews with members of the squad. This allows viewers to connect emotionally with the squad’s stories and morals. By the end of the documentary, I felt like I had an idea (even if it was small) of their everyday life, struggle, and hope for a better future.
As a military veteran who has deployed to the Middle East, it was intriguing seeing war from another perspective. One of the “main characters,” Mohamed Farah, was a fighter with the Syrian resistance before he joined the “White Helmets,” and his story really resonated with me. During his interview he said, “Better to rescue a soul than to take one.” That statement has stuck with me since the first time I watched the documentary. We all have our own opinions about war, but that simple difference in mentality is worth examining.
“White Helmets” is truly one of the most absorbing documentaries I’ve ever watched. It connects the reality of the war in Syria to the real people who are living through it. At a run-time of under 45 minutes and being the winner of an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2017, it’s worth a watch.
Image courtesy of Netflix.