‘The White Helmets’ a Netflix original short documentary, set in Aleppo, Syria and Turkey in early 2016 won the Oscar for ‘Best Short Documentary’ at the 89th Academy Awards ceremony, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LA. The film was directed by Academy Award®–nominated director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara.
Unfortunately representatives from the Syria Civil Defence could not attend the event but the Head of the Syria Civil Defence, Raed Saleh, released a video accepting the award [see below for link to video].
Khaled Khatib, a White Helmet volunteer and cinematographer on the film said:
“ I am absolutely delighted that we won an Oscar — it shows us that people care about us and the people we serve. This award is for all the volunteers of the White Helmets and all people around the world who are working for peace.”
Reacting to the award Raed Saleh, Head of the Syria Civil Defence said:
“We are honored that ‘The White Helmets’ film has received an Oscar. This film has helped show the world what is happening in Syria and we want to thank our brothers and sisters who stand with us on the side of life.”
But we are not happy to do what we do. We abhor the reality we live in. What we want isn’t support to continue, but rather support to end this work.1 We hope this film and the attention helps move the world to act to stop the bloodshed in Syria.”
Raed Saleh, the Head of White Helmets, couldn’t make the event but he sent this message. Watch and share his words.
The tragedy of what has happened in Syria has spawned numerous artistic renderings. This is only fit and proper considering the historic nature of what has taken place there – the strength of revolutionary sentiment, the extreme violence of the regime’s initial crackdown on protests, the biblical refugee crisis which has now drawn in neighbouring countries and created desperate, wrenching scenes in the Mediterranean and in mainland Europe.
But at times it seems that only passive portraits have met with international acclaim.
Compare the nature of the documentary The White Helmets, a laudable portrait of humanitarianism which has just won an Oscar for best documentary short, with that of Return to Homs, a more explicitly war-like, though no less moral, depiction of the conflict. The latter seeks to explore the mental state and fates of those who rose up against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and it is successful enough to make a heroic figure of its protagonist, Abdelbasset al-Sarout.
The film does not seek to proselytise about the Syrian revolution, but simply by exposing the fates faced by oppositionists and the brutal reality of life in the country, it ends up convincing the viewer of the essential morality and rightness of their cause. The destruction of the city of Homs serves to illustrate the broader disintegration of Syrian civil society itself, and the role of the regime’s bombs and bullets in that destruction.
The White Helmets is good – just as good – at demonstrating the terrors of life in Syria for civilians. And it is clear-eyed about the causes of this violence. Its chronicling of the lives of those who pull people out of rubble and seek to treat the wounded is affecting and effective. Theirs is a necessary and moving story. But its win at the Oscars is almost denuded of all context.
It is merely a film about the horrors of Syria; it is simply testament to the nature of the sufferings of Syria’s people, an almost generalised statement that war is bad and that those who do good in war are noble.
There is nothing wrong with these statements, despite their obviousness – not least because so many have sought to impugn the White Helmets either as foreign hirelings or an al-Qaeda in the making.
The fact that this film won now, six years into such an essential conflict, suggests that, at least culturally, Syria is no longer a war with participants and sides, but rather that it exists at the same time as a current event and a part of history: a morality tale to be constructed while it happens.
A more productive note was struck in the acceptance speech written by Raed Salah, the head of Syria Civil Defense, which was read out by Orlando von Einsiedel, the film’s director.
After a standard statement of gratitude – notably for the film being made at all, not for the award – Salah pointedly refers to the motto of the organisation, derived from the Quran: “To save one life is to save all of humanity”, something which is all the more effective in light of witnessing the White Helmets pulling babies from bombed-out buildings, civilians from rubble.
Rescuing one person may seem like saving the whole world, but an element of the cumulative matters at the same time. Salah addressed that, too: he noted that the White Helmets “have saved more than 82,000 civilian lives”. And no one can doubt the impact this has had, both for the people rescued and more broadly, providing some hope for a country fast running out.
His words avoided cliché and transcended the more than a little absurd setting which the Oscars represent. He is not passive; he is active, and so are the sentiments he expressed.
Salah also urged activity on his listeners. “I invite anyone here who hears me to work to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world,” he said. This is in marked contrast to the reverence and staid solemnity which the film has attracted in some quarters.
Saying that something must be done can seem obvious – and at the same time it is all too easy for these sentiments to remain unfulfilled. They are, after all, just words; and it’s too easy for those who voice them to remain ineffectual.
Netflix’s ‘The White Helmets’ takes home the company’s first Oscar win