Aspen Film Academy Screenings: ‘The White Helmets’ finds hope in a hopeless Syria
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What: Aspen Film Academy Screenings shorts program
When: Friday, Dec. 23, noon
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: The program includes the 21-minute Senegalese family drama ‘Maman(s),’ the 30-minute dark comedy ‘The Dogcatcher’ and the 40-minute documentary ‘The White Helmets.’
The searing and inspiring documentary “The White Helmets” profiles a band of real-life superheroes risking their lives to save others amid the bloody wreckage and rubble in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
These rescue workers and first responders, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense, organized themselves in 2013. They’ve since saved more than 60,000 lives. Their work earned them a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year.
Producer-director team Joanna Natasegara and Orlando von Einsiedel — previously nominated for an Oscar for 2014’s “Virunga” — wanted to bring this often-incomprehensible conflict down to a relatable level, transcending the debate over the refugee crisis or the Islamic State or geopolitics.
“The story of the White Helmets is a human story that cuts through the politics,” von Einsiedel said in a telephone interview from London. “It’s a story about heroes. And you can’t argue with men and women who risk their lives every day, who have decided not to pick up a gun, and instead to risk their life to save strangers. We found that very inspiring.”
The three main characters in the film are seemingly ordinary men — a tailor, a blacksmith, a former rebel fighter. Like most of the 2,000 White Helments, they’re not professional EMTs. Yet we see them rushing into the rubble left from barrel bombings by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and from Russian airstrikes.
“The idea that you would volunteer to do this incredibly dangerous work is hard to comprehend,” Natasegara said. “And they do it with such generosity and levity that it’s humbling to witness.”
For a portion of the film, the White Helmets leave Aleppo for training in Turkey. Rather than enjoying a respite from the warzone, the men make phone calls home, closely monitor the bombings and yearn to get back to help.
This remarkable 40-minute documentary was released by Netflix in the fall. “The White Helmets” has been short-listed for the Oscar for Best Documentary Short. It plays, along with two short fictional films, at Aspen Film Academy Screenings this afternoon at Paepcke Auditorium. The shorts program is a new addition to the film series, now celebrating its 25th year in Aspen.
The film blends material from the documentary crew with interviews and dramatic GoPro footage shot by the White Helmets themselves during rescues.
“They’re very aware of the power of recording these incidents,” Natasegara said.
The film includes astounding footage from the rescue of the so-called “miracle baby,” a week-old newborn pulled from the rubble of a building in Aleppo by the White Helmets. (Earlier this year, the volunteer force also rescued Omran Daqneesh, whose image — dust-covered and blank-faced sitting on a gurney — has become an iconic photo of the Syrian conflict, though that rescue isn’t included in this film).
While all evidence indicates the White Helmets are an apolitical humanitarian service, a quick internet search turns up many articles and posts attacking them as part of a propaganda machine to rally military intervention from the West and for regime change in Syria. The filmmakers are well aware of this Assad-aligned campaign against the White Helmets. They’re hopeful their film can show the world the selfless motivation behind their work in the warzone.
“They will work in any area and save anyone, but they only work in rebel-held areas because they are not permitted to work in regime-held areas,” explained Natasegara. “So anyone who is close to the regime is prone to disinformation regarding the White Helmets, of the kind that we’ve seen so much of in the U.S. election and so forth. This idea of a post-truth society is very present and it’s being used against the White Helmets.”
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