Saturday, March 18, 2017

Courage, Compassion, and Hopelessness: The White Helmets

A White Helmets volunteer in Aleppo after an airstrike (Beha el Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images).

For the last six years, death has rained from the sky onto the people of Syria. Unchallenged by any regional or foreign powers, the air force of Bashar al-Assad, more recently supplemented by the attack jets of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, have purposely slaughtered civilians in a bid to wipe out the Syrian opposition. Amid chemical attacks, crude “barrel bombs” dumped out of helicopters onto playgrounds and schools, and “double-tap” strikes that target rescuers who rush to save the victims of a first wave of bombings, Syria’s people have been systematically slaughtered. The world has largely shrugged in indifference.

While horrifying images of the ruins of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, capped off the grim parade of news that darkened 2016, a more hopeful story has emerged from the recent rise to prominence of the White Helmets, as the members of the Syria Civil Defense organization are known. These unarmed volunteers don their signature headgear and desperately attempt to pull survivors from the rubble of civilian targets flattened by Putin and Assad’s fighter jets and attack helicopters. Amid Syria’s seemingly endless agony, they’re a rare beacon of humanitarian spirit.

It hardly seems to matter against the Syrian people’s larger tragedy, but the recent short documentary The White Helmets, which is available on Netflix, brought some attention to their plight when it won an Oscar for Documentary (Short Subject) this year. The film, directed by Orlando Von Einsiedel, chronicles the efforts of a few of the White Helmets, whom we meet via interviews. These talking-head segments are calm and composed, and Von Einsiedel makes sure to provide a sharp contrast with the jerky camera footage, smuggled out of Syria, that shows this unit’s members at work. During these segments, Von Einsiedel also helpfully includes captions that list their former occupations, hinting at the lives they lived before the bombs started falling. We get other brief glimpses of those lives when they mention their kids; towards the end, the youthful-looking Mohammed Farah speaks of his daughter and his hopes for her future. In a film that shows plenty of footage of sobbing children being pulled from rubble, it’s especially poignant.

A rescue from a damaged building (photo by Feras Domy, AP)

It also points to a conundrum for any reviewer seeking to assess The White Helmets as a film. This is emotionally harrowing stuff, and it’s clearly not seeking to strike a particularly objective portrait of the situation in Syria. Perhaps the most piercing moment comes when we see footage of the rescue of an infant, trapped for 16 hours in the ruins of a building. The “miracle baby,” as he comes to be known, returns towards the end of the film, now a lively toddler who smiles as he wears his former rescuers’ protective gear.

That, in a nutshell, is the experience of this movie: its opening moments show a White Helmets crew entering a damaged building, only for a second explosion to rock the screen. The first half is almost nonstop mayhem, so when the movie slows down in its second half to show the rescuers taking a month off to train in Turkey, the pace becomes relatively sedate, and Von Einsiedel indulges in a few slow-motion shots that feel out of place. However, this situation is still, in some ways, no less emotionally wrenching, for while the White Helmets are training to save more lives, they have to watch helplessly as footage of their home city getting pounded flat plays endlessly on the news. They make frantic calls across the border and learn that neighbors and family members have been killed.

Not long before The White Helmets won its Oscar, the last holdout neighborhoods of Aleppo fell to Assad’s regime. The war grinds on, and Syrians find themselves trapped between the fanatics of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State on the one hand, and Assad and Putin on the other (or, as one of the White Helmets puts it, ISIS on the ground, Russians in the air). The film tries to put a brave face on this, telling us that they have saved over fifty-eight thousand people in the course of the war. But it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair at the end of the film: however many times the White Helmets rescue their fellow Syrians, it doesn’t seem as though anyone will lift a finger to save their country.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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