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Hope Amidst Carnage: 'The White Helmets' Profiles An Intrepid Syrian Rescue Team

By Tom White

Courtesy of Netflix

Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination in the documentary category. You can see The White Helmets on Saturday, February 25 at 7:50 p.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater as part of IDA's DocuDay.

Over the past year, we have seen a spate of films that address the continually unfolding tragedy that is Syria. From the refugee crisis to the horrific grip of ISIS to the unrelenting and indiscriminate destruction at the hands of the Syrian and Russian governments, there has been no shortage of stories to report to the world. But Syria is the most dangerous place on earth, and it has taken the bravery and conviction of a handful of ad hoc, on-the-ground reporters based there to furnish the stunning footage of carnage and devastation that has figured in much of the work that has been screened for Western audiences.

One such film is The White Helmets, the latest from director Orlando Von Einseidel and producer Joanna Natasegara, whose previous film, Virunga, earned an Academy Award nomination in 2015. The filmmakers happened upon footage on YouTube of the eponymous rescue team and immediately saw a riveting story - and, most crucially, a story of hope amidst such despair.

We caught up with Von Einseidel and producer Joanna Natasegara by phone for a conversation about working with a Syria-based photographer/videographer, the dangers of southern Turkey and the outreach campaign for the film.

How did you find out about the White Helmets?

Joanna Natasegara: You remember the clip of the miracle baby? The baby that is left at two weeks old? We saw that clip and we were so moved by it, and we were even more moved when we realized who was rescuing the baby and that there was a kind of organization behind it called The White Helmets that were conducting rescues like that all over Syria. And we just thought, What an amazing story to tell - a story that really hadn't been heard coming out of Syria.

And you ended up working with the person who shot that footage, Khaled Khatib. How did you contact Khaled?

Orlando Von Einsiedel: Well, the process began when we decided that we wanted to make the film. We got in touch with the White Helmet leadership, and there were a number of trips from London to Istanbul to work through with them exactly what we wanted to do. And they wanted to collaborate with us, in terms of filming material from Aleppo, and they put us in touch with Khaled Khateeb, who is a young volunteer White Helmet.

Khaled began documenting the crisis in Syria from the age of about 16, and he began doing that on his mobile phone. Then he bought a camera and he continued to take photographs, and he became very good. His work's been in The New York Times and various other top publications around the world. He hadn't done much filming, but he was just starting to do that around this time last year.

And then Khaled joined all of the other White Helmets on the training course in Turkey on the Syrian border, and he worked very closely with Franklin Dow, the film's director of photography. Khaled's a very fast learner; the contribution Franklin made was to help improve Khaled’s documentary filming techniques.

And then when all the White Helmets went back into Syria after the five-week training program, Khaled went back with them. He continued doing his normal job of documenting the White Helmets' rescue work, and he also shared the material he was gathering with us.

How extensive was the training with Franklin? How did you communicate what you were looking for in the film?

OVE: Franklin did that predominately, but we all did it as a team. We worked with Khaled every day for five weeks. We set him up with the kind of tasks that we'd set anyone up with if we were training them: Why not try shooting a short profile film about one particular White Helmet? - which Khaled would go and do and then we'd all watch what he’d shot, and he'd edit it too and we’d watch what he edited and we'd critique it and give suggestions.

And we got him to do mock interviews of all of us. And then on purpose, he made errors or we did things to try and trip him up - all of the sorts of general things that go wrong when you're trying to record a documentary, like the microphone being turned off, and so you have to wear headphones when you're recording in the camera to make sure that you can monitor the sound. Or setting up an interview with the sun behind us so that the shadows were enormous and it didn't look very good. It was doing all of that plus the process over the five weeks. In the end, Khaled got a much better understanding of how a documentary is put together.

Did you show him your previous work to give him a sense of your sensibility and your style?

JN: We actually did. We showed him Virunga, and part of the magic of Netflix is that obviously all the films, the original films, are in multiple languages, so he actually watched Virunga in Arabic, which was really wonderful. We showed it to quite a few of the White Helmets when we were with them, actually, and it was really great to see them watch it.

Who shot the interviews of the White Helmets in Turkey?

OVE: Franklin framed them up and lit them, but Khaled was tasked with the process of helping set them all up as well, so he was learning as we went along. He also sat in on those interviews to hear the kind of questions we were asking and watch the entire process. The whole time with Khaled with us, he was part of the process.

It seems to be more common these days to utilize the Errol Morris way of shooting interviews. Given how deeply honest the White Helmets are in expressing their sense of purpose, conviction and honor in what they do, I couldn't imagine an eyeline type of interview. Did you know all along that you wanted to shoot interviews in the way that you did?

OVE: Absolutely. Just like you said, it just felt it was the most honest way to do it. It felt that having the White Helmets talk to an off-screen director somehow broke the bond, could break the bond between them and the audience. That's exactly why we went for that style.

Did you have a de facto Interrotron? What was the setup that enabled them look into the camera?

OVE: We used a system called an EyeDirect. It’s exactly the same, basically.

Most of the shooting was in Turkey, in addition to what Khaled shot in Syria. Was there a sense of risk and danger in Turkey?

JN: The situation in southern Turkey is not entirely secure, and the area in which we were staying was not entirely secure. There were certainly border incursions at that point. We needed to be very vigilant, and certainly we weren't filming at night. But we didn't really need to. It was quite simple to do what we were doing the way that we were doing it. There's a instability all along that border that is not much talked about. In all the camps, there is a threat of kidnapping by ISIS, hence we did not leave the hotel at night. And we were also very aware of our position and we didn't stay in external positions for too long.

Courtesy of Netflix

Seguing to the editing room, there is a sense of immediacy and urgency in the film, but there’s also there's a feeling of deep reflection and contemplation; the balance you strike is very impressive. What were the challenges in coming up with the structure and through line?

OVE: I think the first thing that's worth mentioning, when we began with this story, we considered making this a feature instead of a short. But we felt very early on, that we just couldn't spend two or three years making a film about the Syrian situation because it's so urgent and we really felt this story needed to get out as soon as possible.

So we made the decision to make a short film, which in the end took seven months to put together, rather than years. Interesting that you pick up on the point about reflection and immediacy. That was always our intention, to try and combine those two things. There was an earlier edit in which the whole film bounced backwards and forwards between visceral moments inside Aleppo and more reflective moments in Turkey.

But in the end, we felt that the structure that worked best was setting the film to begin with in Aleppo and having it really take the audience to the streets and to the places that the White Helmets work, and then having the second half in Turkey. But also, while it’s more effective, it also captures a different type of violence. It's not the physical violence. It's a much more emotional violence that the White Helmets go through as they check their phones every day and hear news of friends and family and colleagues that have been caught up in the day's bombings.

It seems that both ISIS and the government are throttling the Internet; just to get footage out and or even just to call out is a challenging enterprise. How are the White Helmets getting their stories out?

JN: It's very difficult. In Aleppo, for Khaled and this team, they were on the ground trying to get footage out; it was sporadic. Sometimes it was very, very difficult to get to; either they were trying to send it over the Internet, which was of course incredibly slow and a frustrating process, or sometimes they would send footage out with people who were leaving, which is very dangerous.

To leave Eastern Aleppo just to get into Turkey, you’re talking about traveling on roads where there are snipers or government agents and there’s obviously always the chance of bombardments. So it was as difficult as you might imagine. We have to be patient. Obviously that doesn’t impact well on an edit, but when you’re making a film like this, nothing is easy.

Will the White Helmets be able to come to Los Angeles with the travel ban in place?

JN: We're working on that. We’re really hoping that they will be able to travel with us. The current situation is that anyone with an existing visa can travel. Khaled does have a visa, so we're just trying to ascertain whether that’s going to actually bear fruit or not. But we're very worried. We really wanted them to be with us. It's a work in progress.

With respect to Netflix, you have the great good fortune of having Netflix and its tremendous global reach. But I'm curious about the on-the-ground outreach campaign and getting the film to the right thought-leaders and decision-makers. Talk about your outreach efforts around the world - in London, the US and elsewhere.

JN: Outreach is always something that's very important to us. We always want the films we make to have the right impact on the ground. The White Helmets are very clear about their message, which is, they want to be known, they want to be protected and they want the bombing to stop. So certainly it was important for us to get their message out to the right audience.

We worked quite closely with an organization called the Syria Campaign, which has been using the film to show to politicians and influential people. And we’ve shown the film in the UK Parliament and in the US Congress and in various other places. And certainly last year was a big year for the White Helmets anyway: They were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and were supported by a wide range of very high-profile people.

In combination with the film, the idea of raising their profile and ensuring that people have really heard about them and that they feel that they are a group to protect is something we're quite proud of. We just need to keep going.

Editor's Note: Netflix announced on February 17 that Raed Saleh, the leader of The White Helmets, and Khaled Khatib, one of the cinematographers of the film and a White Helmet volunteer, will be attending the Oscars ceremony.

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.