‘The White Helmets’ Offers an Intimate Look at Aleppo
Netflix short documentary goes where few are able
by KEVIN KNODELL
“Just go to my brother’s, okay? And he will find my son,” Abu Omar pleads into the phone as he sits helplessly in a hotel room in Turkey.
Omar is a member of Syria Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, who just learned that a massive car bomb has detonated in the section of Aleppo where his brother and son work. Fellow White Helmets, sitting with him in the hotel room, comfort and reassure him.
Omar and the group are temporarily away from the battlefield to train in rescue techniques. They watch the carnage on T.V. and wait for news. Eventually, one of his friends hands Omar the phone. “My son. This is my son,” he says with obvious relief in his eyes.
But after the relief passes, Omar becomes reflective. “Brother, what’s the difference between my son and another person’s? Aren’t they all innocent? What’s their sin, whoever it is?”
This is a haunting moment from the Netflix short documentary The White Helmets that chronicles the experiences of a small group of SDC volunteers from Aleppo.
They aren’t soldiers or rebels. They carry no weapons. Their job is to save lives — not take them. They respond to bombings to rescue people from the wreckage in areas cut off by the Assad regime.
The group claims to be neutral and insists that its members will help anyone they come across — though it has received funding from Western governments and been accused of spreading anti-Russian propaganda.
British Army veteran turned security consultant James Le Mesurie helped establish the group in early 2013. It was founded as a response to the indiscriminate bombing of civilians by the Syrian air force. The situation has not improved more than three years later.
In Aleppo, the SDC must contend with bombings by not only the regime, but by Russian warplanes as well as intense shelling by competing militia groups in the city — pro- and anti-regime.
The White Helmets, from the makers of the excellent Virunga, depicts the trials of the volunteers. The filmmakers gave 21-year-old Khaleed Khateeb — a Syrian journalist working with the SCD — a camera to document the conflict in high definition video.
With a mixture of Khateeb’s video, cell phone footage from town residents, and interviews with the volunteers, the film offers an intimate look at the conflict few journalists have managed.
The scenes from Aleppo are chaotic, raw and occasionally gruesome. Barrel bombs fall from the sky and tear neighborhoods apart, resulting in billowing clouds of dust and smoke. The violence mutilates bodies.
Whenever the White Helmets find someone alive they shout praises to god — a far cry from militants who shout their praises to celebrate deaths and executions.
The scenes in Turkey and the interviews are a vivid counterpoint. In one scene, a volunteer stands on a street corner and comments on how peaceful it is. He looks up into the sky and sees a coalition warplane flying into his country to go after a target. These scenes feel reflective, almost meditative.
But as the volunteers train in Turkey, they feel a sense of guilt being away from Aleppo. Even though they know their training will help them do their jobs better, it’s emotionally taxing to be away while bombs drop on their city.
They constantly check their phones to make sure their relatives are still alive. When they aren’t training, many of them stick glued to the T.V.s in their hotel to see what’s going on in Syria.
For them, the images on the T.V. aren’t an abstract foreign land. It’s their neighborhoods and communities this war has destroyed.
They hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. In a conflict with few heroes and seemingly countless villains, the White Helmets press on. The war in Syria is one of the greatest calamities of the 21st century and it’s not likely to end soon.
The SCD is currently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Watch The White Helmets to see why. It’s only 40 minutes long and well worth every minute.