By Caitlin Kelly
If you haven’t yet seen this documentary about the White Helmets — a volunteer group that races to the scene of attacks in Syria — it’s a must.
It won the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2017; Sundance (for those not into film) is considered the U.S.’s most prestigious annual film festival.
I saw it last night.
But it’s not an easy 104 minutes, and I found myself crying this morning as I thought through all the images and sounds it contains:
— a father weeping as his six-year-old son is pulled, dead, from beneath the rubble
— the terrifying sight and sound of a rainfall of incoming bombs
— a car on fire with two civilians in it
— the hammering of an excavator trying to unearth the latest victims
— the challenge of not having enough body bags for all the corpses and body parts they encounter
— the men trying to decide — by looking at a foot they found — whether it’s one of their friends.
It is a searing and unsparing look at daily life in hell.
And yet, and yet, the director, Feras Fayyad, was wise to also include much laughter and joy, the men singing and even taking a sunny, if brief, day out in the playground, with a bunch of their delighted little kids, to leaven the brutality.
It’s too easy to think we know this place or to not care about it — but here’s a little girl and her Dad going to six Aleppo pharmacies to try to find vitamins because her hands are now weakened by malnutrition. There are none to be found.
Here’s a couple going to get married, in the middle of death and destruction.
Here’s the men buying a bag full of goldfish, perhaps the most unlikely purchase imaginable in what is basically a war zone, combing the city to find enough water and then filling a fountain with fish and water.
Here’s a brief video clip of Fayyad — who was twice imprisoned and tortured — discussing why he made the film.
To bear witness.
As a journalist in New York, I get invited daily to events meant to promote new products and services, hotels and restaurants. I ignore 99.9 percent of them.
But I’ve long been deeply intrigued by the White Helmets and their work.
Not even sure how I ended up on this press list — as the room was filled with industry folk being asked to vote as Academy members on its merits — but I’m so glad I had the chance to see it, and a brief Q and A in the room with its director, who is now making a second film about a female doctor working there, and having to sneak back into his own country to do so safely.
My father made documentaries for a living, so I’m fascinated — both as a journalist and a lover of film — by how and when these stories are filmed and told.
I’ve read a lot about the war in Syria, and knew of the White Helmets, but never viscerally understood what they do, why they do it and the tremendous physical and emotional toll if takes.
I urge you to see it!