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Film review: The White Helmets

To save a life is to save all of humanity
The White Helmets
A White Helmet worker [File photo]

Finally granting the world an opportunity to see the human and heroic face of the Syrian revolution against the despotic Assad regime, “The White Helmets” achieves what many news reporters and pundits fail to do. It manages to humanise those most affected by the savage brutality of the Syrian civil war, following the eponymous volunteer organisation as they struggle against the odds in order to demonstrate the meaning of selflessness to the world.

Helmed by Academy Award-nominated director Orlando von Einsiedel, the film vividly captures the brutality and senseless violence of Syria’s war. “The White Helmets” is largely set in Aleppo, one of Syria’s most historic and important cities, and is shot as a documentary. The narrative follows three Syrian men – a builder, a blacksmith and a tailor – as they put their lives on the line to live by the film’s motto: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”

The White Helmets

Poster for The White Helmets

The aforementioned motto is of course, for those not familiar with Islam, based on a verse in the Quran that carries the same meaning and is embodied by the White Helmets. In the case of Syria, where the international community and humanity as a whole have catastrophically failed the Syrian people, one could even argue that the sheer self-sacrifice demonstrated by these civilian volunteers has shown that humanity still has something left to offer.

Due to obvious safety concerns, von Einsiedel did not actually visit Syria when shooting his film, although he and his team interviewed and observed the White Helmets as they received first responder training in Turkey due to a lack of resources and support in their homeland.

However, the absence of von Einsiedel’s film crew has not disadvantaged the documentary in the slightest, as it benefits from actual reality to provide its gripping sense of realism. The footage captured from within Syria was actually taken by the White Helmets themselves, giving viewers a first-hand perspective of what it is actually like to throw caution to the wind and run into a bomb site in order to save lives.

As a result, the footage is often harrowing. Children are pulled from bombed out homes covered in dust and debris, reminding us all of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh who sat bloodied, bewildered and confused in the back of an ambulance after being rescued from an airstrike by the White Helmets. In one instance, a week-old baby is even rescued from a building reduced to rubble, painfully reminding us that the Assad regime and its Russian backers know no limits when conducting their indiscriminate air raids.

Through the support of Netflix, the documentary also enjoys a Hollywood standard of digital production values. In fact, and judging by the way the footage was edited, one would be forgiven for thinking that this was a film directed by Paul Greengrass who is famed for helming the Bourne action film series. The footage is visceral and very kinetic, reflecting the heart-pounding danger that the White Helmets experience whenever they launch into action.

Whilst some may baulk at the “Hollywoodisation” of this documentary, I would argue that that is one of its strong points. Viewers must bear in mind that what they’re seeing is real and, by making the film eminently watchable, von Einseidel and his team have managed to successfully craft a documentary that will likely be accessed and watched by millions of people around the world, raising the profile of the White Helmets and gaining them the recognition that they deserve.

Indeed, they have recently been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and have won the Swedish Right Livelihood Award, an “alternative Nobel prize”, for “outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement in rescuing civilians.”

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad scoffed at the idea that the White Helmets should be nominated for a peace prize due to their efforts to save lives in the country he destroyed. AL-Assad has said: “What did they achieve in Syria? I would only give a prize to whoever works for the peace in Syria.” Clearly, Al-Assad just put himself out of the running for his own prize.

As one of the characters in “The White Helmets” admirably declares as he explains why he chose to save lives as his country goes through a traumatic war: “Better to rescue a soul than to take one.”

Well, Bashar, you have not only taken one soul, but hundreds of thousands. Perhaps that should be the main lesson people take from this highly recommended film.

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