A good documentary doesn’t just recite facts – it builds worlds. If you’re lucky, this world is friendly and fun. Many documentaries are fascinating because they allow viewers to experience something unusual or unbelievable. In The White Helmets, however, the world of the film is all too believable, and the fascination is morbid.
Wikipedia says “The White Helmets… officially known as Syria Civil Defence, is a volunteer organisation that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria. The bulk of their activity in Syria consists of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery. 159 White Helmets have been killed since the organization’s inception.” This is all true. However, it tells us very little about the bravery or integrity of these amateur lifesavers, the violence they endure, and or what motivates them to risk their own lives for complete strangers.
The world of The White Helmets is one we will all be familiar with. It appears to us in 30-second segments of grainy, colourless news footage, sandwiched between royal babies and the sport. It’s a world we can all shake our heads at and agree “that’s bad”. However, it is not a world we can sense. We cannot feel the air shake or see the trees bend as a jet flies overhead. We cannot taste rubble and dust on our tongues.
You may go into this film eager to see the human faces behind the statistics, to experience the drama first-hand. The White Helmets will certainly deliver. However, you will come away humbled, sobered, and grateful that you don’t live in constant fear for the lives of everyone you love.
Handheld cameras follow the rescuers to places no news reporter would. We journey with the filmmakers into the unstable ruins of collapsing buildings and active bomb sites. The footage is visceral and uncensored.
One scene involves a baby. The baby is pinned under the remains of a collapsed house. The top of its head, the only part exposed, is so covered in dust that the baby could be mistaken for a stone. It cries out, letting all the rescuers know it’s still alive. What follows is a rescue operation tenser and more emotionally charged than anything that could be staged.
The White Helmets is an unusual recommendation. Make no mistake, the film is not enjoyable. It’s fascinating, yes, it’s eye-opening and insightful, but it’s not enjoyable. The film runs for only 40 minutes. Usually, a short run time might indicate that the film is not bloated, that everything we see is carefully chosen and precisely placed. In The White Helmets however, the short run time might simply be because that’s all a viewer can take in one go. Any more would desensitize us entirely.
The film’s deliberate contrasting of destruction and despair with tranquil, tender and fragile glimpses into family lives is designed to provoke a reaction. The directors want you to be outraged, to see clearly that no political gain can justify the human cost of this civil war, and also to admire the selflessness and courage of those who give their lives so that others may live. In another documentary, such an obvious motive could feel like lecturing, but here it is totally justified. We should be angry. We should be sickened. And when the film ends and we return to our own worlds we should acutely aware of our own safety. We go into this film innocent. When we come out, we should be able to feel what it’s like not to live in fear.