Writer/Co-Director Feras Fayyad, Co-Directors Steen Johannessen and Hasan Kattan
This 2018 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Feature is a devastating Must See about the remaining White Helmets, the volunteers who rush to bombing sites to dig out potential survivors and the remains of the dead, in war ravaged Aleppo, Syria. The constant tension of living in a war zone where bombs are dropped indiscriminately on the civilian population, and the agony of worrying about the safety of family and friends, is palpable for these volunteers. If the viewing experience is this difficult, it’s hard to imagine how excruciating it must be living life as these people do.
The sense of heartbreak for Khaled, the main individual we follow, is overwhelming, as we see the challenges he faces doing rescue work with his colleagues. We watch as they dig out very few survivors, and mostly recover the dead, many times in pieces, to the wails of grieving family members standing by. The huge emotional and psychological toll this takes on Khaled and his peers is revealed in their faces and in their conversations, during and in between bombings. Each wrestle with the decision to stay in the city of their birth or try to escape to Turkey or wherever they can in order to keep their families safe. But leaving seems just as impossible as staying, with no clear or easy route out as borders become more difficult to cross and airstrikes seem to get closer and closer.
Even the moments of respite where we see Khaled with his three young children, trying to be a playful dad, desperate to give his kids some semblance of normalcy in the midst of such chaos, are fraught with worry and interrupted by air raid warnings. He says he would rather stay and have his family die than send them away tp perish without him. As we see him listening to voice messages from his kids, or video calling them, we fear the worst.
Yes, the film also elicits political outrage, at the Assad regime, the Russian airstrikes, the failed U.S. intervention, and the silence of Arab nations and the world in general at these crimes against humanity. But mostly I felt a huge sadness that these horrors are still happening in our world, in our time. That such suffering still exists in this world is the collective responsibility of all of humanity, especially any of us who find ourselves in relative peace and safety. How will history judge our collective actions or those we refuse to take? The film shows us harrowing situations and leaves us with sobering questions.