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Out of the rubble

The White Helmets' is a harrowing look at rescue teams working in war-torn Syria

A still from ‘The White Helmets’.
A still from ‘The White Helmets’.

Two men, one carrying a stretcher, rush into a battered, partly collapsed building . Two young children are carried out. “Allahu Akbar," someone cries. Right then, there’s a loud explosion; the screen shakes and fills with dust. We hear “Allahu Akbar" again and everything goes black.

This is the opening to Orlando von Einsiedel’s The White Helmets, a 40-minute documentary about the Syrian volunteer force whose members pull people out of the rubble after bombings. The organization was founded in 2013 and has some 3,000 members operating in 120 centres across Syria. It has rescued close to 60,000 people and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Most of its members are civilians—builders, blacksmiths—though we’re also introduced to Mohammed Farah, who fought with the armed rebels for three months. He quit when he realized they were targeting civilians. “Better to rescue a soul than take one," he says.

Their work is impossibly dangerous and the film drives this home by following close on their heels as they run into collapsing buildings and towards, rather than away, from areas being shelled. There’s a moment when the camera is panning and something—a bomb, a shell—lands, and the person filming is knocked off his feet by the impact. You have to wonder what kind of film crew would be willing to sacrifice their lives to capture this footage. It turns out the cameraman is a Syrian man named Khaled Khatib, a member of the White Helmets who films their rescues.

Watching the film now, days after Aleppo fell to the government forces, the fate of its citizens in the balance, makes for a desperately sad experience. “I have to admit, the situation is going from bad to worse," a volunteer named Abu Omar says. Yet, there are flickers of hope,, like the rescue of Mahmoud, the one-week-old “miracle baby" who survived 16 hours under a collapsed building. To see Mahmoud reunited with his rescuers is both moving and kind of funny; he’s just a little kid on holiday and, suddenly, here are all these bearded men kissing him.

The White Helmets is streaming on Netflix.

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