Men armed with orange stretchers run in exasperation towards a huge pile of dusty rubble. A young girl and boy emerge in the arms of another man before a second bang sounds. Another airstrike has struck the building, now in ruins, where a rescue operation is taking place. The screen turns to black.
This is the opening scene of The White Helmets, a Netflix short documentary premiering globally on September 16. Over the course of 40 captivating minutes, viewers are offered a glimpse into the daily existence of the 2,900-strong Syrian volunteer force, whose members risk their lives to save their fellow countrymen and women in the most dangerous war zone in the world.
It follows three men—a former builder, a former blacksmith and a former tailor—who work in the same unit in Aleppo, and train together in Turkey, returning to continue their work rather than remaining in safety across the shared border. The volunteers cannot access the training they need to improve their rescue skills inside Syria because of the conflict. Such training is vital as these men are amateurs who have taken it upon themselves to save victims, rather than holding any prior rescue experience.
In the Syrian war, now halfway through its sixth, bloody year, The White Helmets—named so because of the color of their protective hard hats—have identified 60,000 people that members have saved from the aftermath of attacks. Many of those attacks are Syrian regime barrel bombs or Russian military airstrikes.
But the organization, as noted in its charter, remains a neutral party in the conflict. It is a fact all the more admirable in light of the loss of dozens of its volunteers in bombardments, including secondary strikes, after they have rushed to rescue victims. Four died Wednesday attempting to save civilians and, last month, an airstrike killed Khaled Omar, the volunteer who became famous for saving the ‘miracle baby’ stuck under rubble for 16 hours.
The group is now nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and gained further notoriety for rescuing Omran Daqneesh, the Aleppo child who went viral for his empty stare in the aftermath of an airstrike. The message of standout heroes, amid a conflict seemingly devoid of any hope, is starting to spread.
This is the aim of The White Helmets filmmakers, director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara, both Academy Award-nominated for their previous project Virunga: to tell the world about the eponymous organization. The pair were attracted to working with Netflix because of the video streaming service’s “phenomenal” reach of 83 million people in 90 countries, says Einsiedel, allowing their story to be viewed far and wide.
“We hope that people watch this and they are inspired by these guys and then they go and share on their social media the White Helmets website [and] the film’s trailer, then they tell other people to watch it,” he says. “We hope the film helps break down stereotypes, in particular about men from Syria, and we hope that it shows the facts of the situation there.”
The White Helmets received a standing ovation at its first film screening earlier this week, and is set to make its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Wednesday.
It captures the volunteers both in the crossfire of airstrikes, through footage shot by the White Helmets themselves, and in moments of quiet in Aleppo and training in southern Turkey, praying in their rooms or receiving news from home. The filmmakers, who had traveled to Turkey with a skeleton team to gain the volunteers’ trust, paired the group’s cameraman Khalid Khateeb with their own cinematographer so he was able to learn greater documentary storytelling techniques. They also lent him a broadcast quality camera. And it pays off, with some of their most intimate and intense moments displayed in stunning footage.
While the volunteers find time to play practical jokes, their work is always at the forefront of their minds. “In terms of those sort of personal moments, we wanted to show just how these guys can never escape the war,” says Einsiedel. “When they are in Syria, they are experiencing it every day because they are experiencing bombs and they are running to rescue people. But even when they are in Turkey, every day they are coming back, they are checking their phones, and they are living the war on a very psychological level.”
The film’s best moments are reserved for those that fill the viewer with some semblance of hope; for example, the rescue of the young baby trapped in rubble or the inspiring words of the White Helmets themselves, men and women who have traded weapons for stretchers. “I thought it’s better to do humanitarian work than to be armed,” says one of the film’s main characters, Mohammed Farah. “Better to rescue a soul than to take one.”
This message is one that drew Einsiedel and Natasegara into the project, but work on the film took its toll on the pair, too. They pored over 70 hours of footage, much of it graphic, deciding what would be palatable to the viewer. “I don’t think that we have shown nearly 2 percent of what they experience because footage that we have seen is just not watchable, people wouldn’t stand it,” says Natasegara. “I don’t think we could even begin to imagine what they are going through and how they will be once the war is over.”
The process saw the filmmakers—inevitably—become emotionally attached to their affable subjects. “Anyone that was in post-production, anybody that touched this project, it moved, it left its mark, and I think it has then made everybody just feel even more determined that we do get their story out into the world.”
Amid the complex politics of the Syrian conflict, Einsiedel and Natasegara have delivered a film that is palatable to the layperson who does not fully understand what is occurring on the ground. The documentary also succeeds in the delicate balancing act of impartiality. “We did work incredibly hard for it to be neutral,” the producer says. “We hope that at least in the footage and in the work that you see that it just speaks for itself.”
The White Helmets are etching their names into history and, thanks to documentaries such as this, will be remembered long after the Syrian conflict has ended. Yet despite the perpetual bombardments and horrific sights amid the rubble, they still have faith that the international community will rally to the aid of the Syrian people and find a solution to the conflict.
“That gives me hope about humanity,” says Einsiedel. “And it gives me hope that in the end when Syria finally gets out of the mess that it’s in, there are a good group of guys and heroes that will be there to help rebuild the country.”