Netflix‘s first original Oscar winning documentary explores the situation in Syria and specifically focuses on a group of first responders called The White Helmets. The film follows one group of White Helmets, but there are multiple units full of people with no prior training across the country willingly running straight into debris from daily bombings to save others, with full knowledge of the risk and destructive power being delivered daily. The lives saved tally over 53,000 and counting.
The motto of the White Helmets is striking in its simplicity and wisdom: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”
When we think about heroes, we are generally compelled to picture a pinnacle of glory, costumed and branded and ready to serve. The heroes of The White Helmets, however, go by a different creed: life is sacred and to save another life is to save the same life that is in you.
Upon looking for more information about this film, the sheer amount of polarity in the ratings based on clear political alignments was astounding. Ratings of 10s and 1s get thrown around because showing a person suffering is universal, but the context dictates our understanding of the aforementioned pain. So it is striking that with the surplus of information free to investigate, much of our understanding is the ultimate filter of “How does this affect me and what I hold to be true?” We drench ourselves in so much information that we forget we actually have to digest it instead of simply swimming through it and splashing anyone within range.
The documentary was short, so expecting it to paint an entire picture of the nation, along with shedding light on every nation and influential group involved, is a tall order, and not one that was advertised. Focusing on the single unit and the individual heroes in it made for a powerful narrative, and when the scenes involved their families, they created a connection with the audience that only grew more powerful. When a member, finding out that his son survived a run of bombings while watching news coverage of the many others killed, reminded everyone around him that although he was relieved, there was no real difference between his own son and the other sons who had just been killed. To remember that death is death and life is life in a time of constant emotional volatility is an incredible display of heroism and bravery.
The cinematography was insanely well done and the camera genuinely felt like the eyes of both observation and desperate outreach. While there could have been more context given about the events taking place, the impact of hearing a little boy begging his father not to die is grounding, to say the least. The bomb blasts and massive amounts of damage raining down were perfectly effective in giving a “face” to the loose idea of destruction and giving real scale to the death delivered from above.
If you thought that was bad enough, a member noting “ISIS on the ground, Russians in the air,” while on hold waiting to find out if a brother and son were alive after hospitals were under attack from every front, put the insurmountability of the situation into a scary perspective for the average citizen.
Powerful visual storytelling and a sense of grim hopefulness were the pillars of this film. The tone and artistry were handled with care, without taking away from the raw, true stories. Additionally, with the reports of even bigger investments by Netflix into original content, there is hope that controversial cable companies and risk-averse studios will have more opportunities to produce their content, and without an ad every five minutes telling you where to find the best price on stuff you don’t want (I’m looking at you, Hulu).
The future of the world is perpetually volatile, but the future of information is on an undeniable path. So while we can’t help some backwards movement in the growth of information availability, we can help how we digest it by feeding our heads with the nutrition and throwing out the toxic waste.
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