The year is 2016: after five years of war over 400,000 Syrians have been killed, while millions more flea their homes in search of safety. Those who remain rely on a group of volunteers who have dedicated their lives to saving anyone in need, a group of men known locally as The White Helmets (officially the Syria Civil Defence).
Near the beginning of this documentary, we see a group of Syrian men huddled around in a circle enjoying a meal together like a regular group of friends. Except they’re not a regular group of friends, they are former bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists and painters who have taken it upon themselves to attend to the aftermath of fallen bombs, and save any bodies they can find.
One second we see them tucking into bread and bowls of hummus, chatting quietly; the next they are up on their feet as a loud noise outside signal the arrival of yet another bomb. No questions asked, no hesitation; the men follow the plumes of smoke in speeding trucks, brows furrowed in concentration for what’s to come.
These are Aleppo’s own White Helmets, and here we see them face unimaginable danger as they set out to search for survivors among the wreckage, using nothing more than basic tools and their bare hands. These men have been risking their lives since Syria’s civil war began in March 2011. Between now and then thousands of innocent civilians have been killed and injured from daily air raids, but The White Helmets have been credited with saving more than 100,000 lives through their work.
As the violence intensifies, the reality faced by Syrian civilians is stark and almost incomprehensible, especially for someone living in a country as safe as Ireland. Nonetheless, with each personal story that is told we get greater insight into the men’s rationale and come to understand why they are willing to put their lives on the line to save strangers, even though they might be plagued with worry about the safety of their own loved ones.
“When I want to save someone’s life I don’t care if he’s an enemy or a friend. What concerns me is the soul that might die”
Abed, The White Helmets
It’s worth mentioning that their compassion-fuelled triumphs don’t come without setbacks, as we learn that over 204 volunteers have been killed over the years while saving others. But despite the fact that their work is set against horrific atrocities, it gave me hope for humanity at large, with glimpses of incredible compassion, strength and some little miracles along the way which manage to illuminate the darkness.
The film took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2017, two Nobel peace prize nominations, and has a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes (possibly the most impressive of the accolades). At 40 minutes long it’s a short watch that brings big revelations, showing the harrowing realities of the Syrian conflict, and the power of the human spirit.
Watch it on Netflix here.