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Out of Syria’s devastation, ‘The White Helmets’ offer moments of hope

February 23, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
The daily destruction of Syria's civil war is at once shocking and now strangely familiar. The Oscar-nominated documentary short “The White Helmets” aims to get beyond the numbness of the conflict by showing real first responders working to rescue victims from the ongoing assault on cities like Aleppo. Jeffrey Brown talks with the film’s director and producer.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next month, the Syrian civil war will enter its sixth year. The United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed, and more than 10 million people have either fled the country or been displaced within it since the war began.

A documentary that’s up for an Oscar on Sunday attempts to put a human face on that conflict.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our series Beyond the Red Carpet.

JEFFREY BROWN: They are images at once shocking and strangely familiar, the daily destruction of Syria’s civil war.

But the Oscar-nominated documentary short “The White Helmets” aims to get beyond the numbness of this conflict now dragging into its sixth year.

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL, Director, “The White Helmets”: The Syria conflict has been going on for so long, it’s so upsetting, and people feel so powerless. And the story of the White Helmets is a story of hope.

JEFFREY BROWN: Director Orlando Von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara are best known for “Virunga,” their Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary about a team of Congolese National Park guards who protect gorillas from poachers.

In “The White Helmets,” they profile a volunteer group of first-responders working to rescue victims of the ongoing assault on cities like Aleppo, a group that’s been featured on this news program and others.

So, since 2013, the White Helmets, whose official name is the Syrian Civil Defense, has, by some estimates, saved 70,000 people.

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: What we found most extraordinary was who the rescue workers were, this group of everyday Syrian civilians who had decided not to pick up a gun, had decided not to leave Syria, and instead had decided to stay and every day risk their lives to save their fellow citizens.

And they’re builders, tailors, bakers, just normal people. They’re truly real-life heroes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was it like to meet them?

JOANNA NATASEGARA, Producer, “The White Helmets”: It was really nerve-racking at first. We didn’t know if they would live up to this incredible story we that we thought we had found. And, actually, what we found was people that were even more heroic and inspiring than we had thought.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is this moment in which a baby is rescued from the rubble, which is just incredible. It’s almost — you couldn’t believe you’re watching what you’re seeing.

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: Yes.

It’s — the tragedy is, scenes like that are playing out every day inside Syria. But this particular rescue, the very fact that it’s been documented, it acts as a moment of hope and something to rally around that, really, there is still hope in Syria and there are very brave people doing incredible work.

JEFFREY BROWN: For safety reasons, interviews and some of the filming were done in Turkey, near the border and away from the immediate danger. But the filmmakers found a way to get a close-up view.

JOANNA NATASEGARA: Usually, in our work, we would be on site in a location even in a war zone filming ourselves.

But in this situation, the White Helmets themselves said: Please don’t, please don’t do that, because, actually, you put our teams at greater risk as well.

So, luckily, we didn’t need to. We found — we were very lucky to find a young White Helmet called Khaled Khateeb whose work in photography had been used by The New York Times. And so we brought him out to the Turkish-Syrian border, and we paired him with our own cinematographer. And they worked together for five weeks to really — you know, to learn a common language.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were there surprises for you in this process? I assume you knew something about it going in, but …

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: I think we knew going into this project just how — the physical stress and the physical violence that the White Helmets experience on a daily basis.

But we were really shocked by the emotional toll this work takes on them. And even inside Turkey, which is relatively safe, the guys at the end of the training every day, when they got their phones and they connected to Wi-Fi, they’d suddenly get this barrage of messages about the day’s bombings.

And they’d find out that colleagues had been killed or family members or friends. And it was so shocking. And yet, despite all of that, they — these guys still have hope.

ABU OMAR, White Helmet (through interpreter): I’ve learned many lessons from baby Mahmoud. Patience, persistence, hard work, and never to lose hope. No matter what happens, they will live.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, at the end of the film, one of the White Helmets says, “Tomorrow will be better.”

What is the situation for them today?

JOANNA NATASEGARA: Oh, gosh.

You know, they — they have all dispersed now. The teams from Eastern Aleppo are obviously no longer in Eastern Aleppo. They’re a target for the regime. And Eastern Aleppo is now under regime control.

So, they have gone on to join White Helmet centers in other areas of Syria and are continuing to do their work. But who knows what is next for the conflict? We certainly hope for the best, but things aren’t looking to improve any time soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some news since our interview last week: After initial fear they wouldn’t be able to enter the U.S. following the travel ban, it looks like White Helmets cameraman Khaled Khateeb and the group’s leader, Raed Saleh, will attend the Oscars ceremony this Sunday.

And you can stream “The White Helmets” now on Netflix.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown from Los Angeles.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can’t watch that without being moved by it.

And you can check out all of our coverage of potential Academy Award winners on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour. You can search for Beyond the Red Carpet.

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