As the 40 minute Netflix documentary The White Helmets begins, we hear a plane fly overhead and then the sound of a bomb falling. Against a black screen the titles begin when the bomb hits. Smoke and dust are everywhere, filling up all the available space as two men rush into a barely standing building. One carries a stretcher. The cameraman follows the rescuers and we see those inside – the victims struggling to walk out on their own, the rescuers carrying those who can’t.
We hear it before it happens: another bomb falling.
Red smoke billows and obscures the camera’s view.
This is the story of the White Helmets. This is the day-to-day life of those in Syria.
The White Helmets is a short yet deeply moving documentary about the Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets. Although directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, most of the footage of the first half is shot by the White Helmets themselves. Raw, shaky camera footage is interspersed with quiet one-on-one interviews with Khaled Farah, Abu Omar, and Mohammed Farah. As these three men explain their response to the Syrian war, their former occupations appear beneath their names:
Former builder. Former blacksmith. Former tailor.
Now they are first responders, humanitarians, and heroes.
During the five-year war, 400,000 people have died in Syria, while millions have fled. The White Helmets are 2,900 civilian volunteers who work in 120 centers in areas outside regime control. These volunteers are the first to arrive on sight after a bombing.
Mohammed Farah explains how he began as a member of the opposition, but joined the White Helmets after he saw evidence that the regime was targeting civilians: “… And I thought, ‘It’s better to do humanitarian work than to be armed. Better to rescue a soul than to take one.’”
The White Helmets help all people, “no matter what side they are on,” Abu Omar says, as we see the White Helmets search a bombed building for survivors and make sure that all residents are accounted for.
“I consider them all to be my family,” Mohammed Farah says of those he rescues.
Indeed, it’s the idea of family and the value of human life that is the core theme of this documentary. As we move from the three men’s personal accounts and footage, we are told the story of “The Miracle Baby,” a child who survived a bombing that left him buried in rubble for 16 hours. The White Helmets believed he was dead, and then they heard him crying beneath them. The documentary shows us the baby as he is found and removed from the debris, the rescuers around him erupting into cheers.
“I imagined this was my son,” Mohammed Farah says, “And I started to cry. I couldn’t hold it in, and all my colleagues started to cry.”
After this moving story of hope, we leave Syria for Southern Turkey, where our three White Helmets receive training. As the scenery changes, so does the documentary. This second half of the film is cleaner and crisper. There is no more shaky-cam, no more bombs falling down. This is the work of the documentary crew, and just as they bring order to the footage, so does Turkey bring temporary peace to the White Helmets.
As the volunteers learn new skills that they will take back to their fellow White Helmets, we are told of further destruction in Syria. We viewers become witnesses to the death and destruction that touches all Syrians. We watch in our comfortable, peaceful homes as brothers die and the war goes from bad to worse to hell. Yet in spite of all this, the White Helmets continue to do their duty. They continue to have hope that one day this war will end and their friends and loved ones will survive.
“Without hope, what good is life?” we are asked…
This documentary is a testimony to the everyday Syrian who fights back not through death and destruction, but through rescue and healing. It is a testimony to the Syrian hope for restoration.
The White Helmets is now available on Netflix.com.
To learn more about the White Helmets, visit WhiteHelmets.org.