Since entering the awards race in 2014, Netflix has been nominated for 132 Academy Awards and has taken home 22 Oscars across almost every category. In 2017 at the 89th Academy Awards, the streaming colossus earned its first victory, winning the Best Documentary (Short Subject) for The White Helmets. Directed by British documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel, The White Helmets shines a spotlight on the Syrian volunteer organization of the same name, which aids in rescuing civilians from devastated, bomb-riddled areas of Syria that the country’s civil war and other disasters have touched. Balancing the violent chaos provoked by the Syrian Civil War with the profound humanity exhibited by the volunteer organization, The White Helmets is a significant achievement that draws attention to a deplorable conflict that has ravaged Syria for over a decade.
Who Are the White Helmets?
The White Helmets, also known as Syria Civil Defense, began in 2014 and works across Syria to save citizens from crumbling buildings and other disasters, typically those under attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s devotees and allies. At the time of The White Helmets filming, there were 2,900 volunteers in the organization, all from different backgrounds and parts of the country. Khalid Farah, one of the central figures in the documentary, says: “We, the White Helmets, are the first to arrive when there is bombing.” The White Helmets combines chaotic, intense footage from rescue missions with volunteer interviews from their time doing training courses in Turkey. Both components come together to create a riveting and eye-opening portrait of the valiant efforts taken by the volunteers.
‘The White Helmets’ Documentary Shows the Price of War First-Hand
Using extensive on-site footage taken by the members of the White Helmets during their rescue missions, The White Helmets delivers an unflinching look into the true devastation and tragedy caused by the Syrian Civil War. Searching through puzzles of rubble to rescue civilians –– often innocent women and children –– the documentary taps into raw human emotion to convey the urgency of the conflict and the touching courage of the White Helmets. The documentary shifts to more conventional interviews of the organization’s members while training in Turkey, focusing on the existential questions the White Helmets are forced to constantly ask as they struggle to cope with the violence of their circumstances. Naturally, their efforts lead many men to experience survivor’s guilt as they attempt to piece together the reasoning behind the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the civil war and the unpredictability of brutality and death. The profound responsibility these volunteers feel for protecting their community speaks to universal moralities, making for a deeply impacting viewing experience for audiences worldwide.
The White Helmets opens to bodycam footage taken by one of the group’s volunteers during a rescue operation. As the men evacuate children from the wreckage of a building, the structure is once again hit by another round of aerial bombs. This frenetic, enthralling first scene fully sets up the tone of the entire documentary, which never misses an effectual beat throughout its 40-minute runtime. The most potent footage in The White Helmets is captured through these bodycams, placing the viewer in the first-hand perspective of the volunteers. Von Einsiedel collaborated with the White Helmets to compile this footage, much of which the organization had already archived to share with the world. The documentary’s production only took place during the training exercises in Turkey, keeping its team out of the direct line of the conflict.
‘The White Helmets’ Road to Oscar
The White Helmets made its Netflix premiere on September 16, 2016, quickly building positive word-of-mouth and critical reactions to push its campaign toward earning an Academy Award nomination. The autumn of 2016 did not only include the world premiere of The White Helmets but also the Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the Syria Civil Defense, giving the organization a substantial international platform that it had never before experienced and assumably strengthening the documentary’s influence among Oscar voters. In February 2017, just a month before the Oscars ceremony, former President Trump signed off on the discriminatory “Muslim ban,” which limited entry to the U.S. by citizens from many North African and Middle Eastern countries, including Syria. The banning led to much uncertainty about whether the Syrian stars and collaborators on The White Helmets could attend the Oscars. Fortunately, after much back and forth, most of the cast and crew could make it, except for cinematographer Khaled Khateeb, who was barred entry to the country. Facing stiff competition in the Short Documentary category –– including another work focused on the Syrian Civil War, Watani: My Homeland –– The White Helmets ultimately triumphed in the section. During von Einsiedel’s acceptance speech, he took the opportunity to draw special attention to the White Helmet volunteers, saying, “It’s very easy for these guys to feel as though they’ve been forgotten. If everyone could just stand up for a moment and remind them that we all care that his war ends as quickly as possible.”
The White Helmets is a gripping, emotional creation that platforms the altruistic efforts of the eponymous organization, working to bring their accounts to the forefront as they come to the aid of thousands of civilians with safety, efficiency, and tremendous care. The group’s official motto, borrowed from the Quran, perfectly encapsulates their mission: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” At the time of The White Helmets‘ release, over 400,000 Syrians had died during the turmoil of the civil war, and millions more had been forced to flee their homes, staggering statistics that contribute to the documentary’s urgent message. While much of the violence in Syria has subsided since the documentary was filmed, with most rebel insurgency groups quelled by al-Assad’s oppressive regime, the White Helmets still labor unceasingly to help any Syrians in need during a disaster. As of recently, the group has shifted their exertions to the devastating earthquakes that struck Syria and the surrounding area in February and June of this year. Audiences can find The White Helmets streaming on Netflix and streaming in full on the service’s official YouTube account. For more information on the White Helmets or to support their humanitarian work, visit the organization’s official website.