This Best Documentary Feature Nominee follows several members of the “White Helmets,” a group of civilians in Syria’s Aleppo, who race to dig out survivor’s and the bodies of those who were killed in the targeted bombing of civilians during the Syrian civil war.
This documentary is a heartbreaker. It isn’t for the feint of heart. It isn’t just the violence that is portrayed on screen but the effects that you see these violent acts having on the White Helmets that moves you. In fact, for a film which shows dead bodies, and body parts on screen, even of children, it is remarkably reserved and respectful in its portrayal of those moments and they are mostly in just a few scenes.
There really isn’t that much of a plot in this film. It’s like life. Things happen one after another with no thematic through line or build to a climactic moment. That isn’t how life is. In the Hollywood version of this film, the White Helmets are moved by the tragedy they see and sneak out footage to the international press who puts pressure on Syria to end the civil war and the White Helmets become heroes, but this isn’t a Hollywood film. It’s a documentary about something that really happened and continues to happen.
As such, the White Helmets, simply track the helicopters, planes and drones by looking up into the sky and waiting for the bombs to drop. Then like storm chasers, they run toward the destruction while everyone else is running away. They dig out the people, some alive, some dead, and then they go home and wait for text attack.
If there is any sort of through line, it is the main character Khaled, who has a family and would like to get them to Turkey. They won’t leave without him and he won’t leave while his city is being destroyed and his countryman killed. He says, “I was born, grew up, and lived in this city my whole life. I suppose I should die in it as well.”
It’s a depressing movie. The people lament that there are no nations in the world who seem to care. They know they are alone, and that there is no one that is going to stop the bombing. They stay, not to put an end to it, but to help as many as possible survive it.
The film is beautifully shot. It isn’t cinematic in the classic sense of the word but it’s long takes and grittiness feels at the same time the intention of a trained eye but also the sort of fly on the wall, found-footage-esque film, which seems like it was almost accidentally made by just collecting what people happened to record on their cellphones. The conversations and interviews have a bone-tired raw quality which feel like the most intimate and unplanned soul-unburdening which people who have been through hell have in foxholes, rather than the sort of staged interviews which seemingly go hand in hand with documentaries.
It is the sort of film that tugs at your heart, bringing it out of it’s cynicism about world events, or even its passion about a political solution, and into it’s true place. Empathy for another human being.
These first responders become true heroes in your eyes. Not the manufactured heroes of Marvel or DC, who are never in any real danger, or if they are, go out in a blaze of glory. These are real heroes who don't have billions of dollars or super powers. They don't die in a blaze of glory saving thousands. They just get hit by a bomb. One of thousands. A name which could have been lost if not for this film.
For that reason, mainly, I am torn on this film. I love it but I know it isn’t for everyone, and sadly, will most likely not be seen by the very people who need to see it.
For some audiences, the violence will turn them off. For others, the foreign language. For still others, the depressing almost hopeless outlook of the film will be too much.
But for those who do see the film, it knits your heart to the heart of another person and people in a way that I won’t soon forget. But do I think that people who are not already inclined to feel that way will find their hearts moved by this film? No. I don’t think that will happen. Not because the film is incapable of doing that but because they probably won’t see it at all.
So many times in film, we are making movies for the choir. We applaud ourselves for being bold when in reality, we for the most part make movies that espouse our view to be watched by others who do as well, but those whose hearts we hope to sway? We never really made the movie for them in the first place.
I don’t think this film is in that camp but unfortunately it will have the same fate. The people who see will already be the sort of people who feel for the people of Aleppo.
That angry 2nd cousin you have who swears that these people should just leave if they don’t like it there; or who posts that if they don’t want to fight for their country why should we give them military aid; or dislikes every news story about Syrian refugees: that person won’t be convinced by the film because they won’t ever see it, but I believe that if they did, it would do a world of good for their hearts.
As I write these words I hear the words of Khaled, “the rest of the world doesn’t care. We are on our own.” They truly are. God help them.
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