‘White Helmets’ to the Rescue

New Netflix documentary focuses on first responders nominated for a Nobel Prize

The humanitarian crisis in war-torn Syria might not be foremost in the minds of every American. Even Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson famously (or infamously) responded “What is Aleppo?” earlier this month to a question about the city at the center of the Syrian civil war.

The “Battle of Aleppo” has been going on since 2012, and more than 30,000 people (including civilians, rebels, and government forces) have died there. Regardless, Johnson’s not alone: A massive spike in U.S.-based Google searches for Aleppo following Johnson’s gaffe indicates the city wasn’t exactly common knowledge among the public in the first place.

For all its success at humanizing members of the SCD, the film is far from a complete work.

A film now airing on Netflix aims to change that.

“The White Helmets” is a 40-minute documentary that shines a spotlight on the rescue efforts of the Syrian Civil Defense rescue organization. It’s a group of nearly 3,000 volunteers who race to the scenes of bombed-out buildings to save the lives of injured civilians trapped inside — and extricate the bodies of those killed.

The White Helmets have been credited with saving the lives of over 60,000 civilians. Their official stated mission, per the SCD website, is “to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property.”

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Although the film is only 40 minutes, it lacks nothing in gravity, intensity, and emotion. Viewers watch video of bombs dropping on nearby buildings, the rescuers racing to the scenes, pulling people from the rubble — including a newborn child. They witness the SCD fearing for the lives of colleagues and family members in stricken areas. More than 140 of the volunteers have reportedly died in action, and the group has been nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.

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However, not everyone considers “The White Helmets” a straightforward document of brave volunteers risking life and limb for bombing victims. The short film has come under fire from those who call it propaganda and question the neutrality of the group.

In a recent online Newsweek article about the film, one commenter wrote: “How bloody dare you promote this filth. This is nothing but a propaganda piece for al-Qaida. The White Helmets are al-Qaida masquerading as humanitarians. They only operate in terrorist-held areas, have participated in the execution of Syrian soldiers and civilian loyalists, are armed and sectarian … Absolutely disgusting, Netflix is supporting terrorism.”

There’s a petition on Change.org titled “Do Not Give 2016 Nobel Peace Prize to Syrian White Helmets,” with more than 2,700 signed supporters to date. It contends the volunteers are “U.S. and U.K. Government funded and trained agents of ‘regime change’ in Syria” and even claims the group “assisted in Al Nusra/Al Qaeda executions of civilians in Aleppo.”

The film’s producer, Joanna Natasegara, told North Carolina’s WUNC she believes the film accurately represents the White Helmets and their mission.

“In any war there’s a lot of rumor, a lot of incidents that go around,” Natasegara told the news site. “We’re comfortable with their charter, and we are really sure that their work is overwhelmingly for the good, that their work is humanitarian.”

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The film’s direction is credited to Orlando von Einsiedel, a British filmmaker, although even that’s not completely cut and dried. According to the WUNC story, von Einsiedel never set foot in Syria. All the footage from Aleppo was shot by the White Helmets themselves, while von Einsiedel and his crew shot footage from training sessions in Turkey.

Regardless of one’s take on the actual neutrality of the rescuers themselves, it’s fair to say the film that appears on Netflix falls somewhat short of providing a complete picture.

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Concerns about the SCD are never addressed, and it’s notable that the group is almost exclusively referred to by its nickname. The volunteers profiled in the film essentially present their own stories with little objective description, just a few captions interspersed through the film.

Viewers who want a broader understanding of the various players in the Syrian conflict — or even a vague idea of its basic tenets — will be left clueless by “The White Helmets.”

For all its success at humanizing members of the SCD, the film is far from complete. It’s basic hagiography, not a fully functional documentary — which perhaps explains why it only runs 40 minutes, some of which actually feels padded, such as certain training scenes in Turkey.

But as thin as it is, “The White Helmets” does succeed in putting the viewer on the terrifying streets of Syria, which is an accomplishment in itself. With yet another tenuous ceasefire in Syria threatening to fracture right now, the movie provides a critical spotlight on the human toll of war. It’s only one aspect, from one very rigid perspective, and that’s a problem — but it’s still worth watching for what it does deliver.

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