This September, Netflix released The White Helmets, a short documentary about first responders to Syrian and Russian air strikes in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The “White Helmets,” also called the Syrian Civil Defense, is a group of approximately 2,900 civilians who operate in 120 centers around Syria. Nicknamed for the color of their protective headgear, they are the first people to arrive on the scene to help innocent civilians after the daily bombings in Syria, which continue to worsen.
The forty-minute close-up look at life in Aleppo, Syria, was directed by Academy-Award-nominated director Orlando von Einsiedel and produced by Joanna Natasegara. The film manages to highlight numerous acts of courage and virtue within the devastating war zone. Here are just a few of the messages viewers can expect to glean:
- “Life Requires Sacrifice.”
The men spotlighted in this short documentary all had careers before the war began—one used to be a builder, another a blacksmith. Now living in an apocalyptic landscape of half-destroyed buildings and rubble, the men find meaning and a new purpose in life in their new work as rescuers.
When the White Helmets hear Russian aircraft above and the resulting explosions moments later, they all run toward the wreckage and immediately get to work to unearth bodies, many of them children. One of the first rescues depicted in the documentary shows a five-year-old girl. Later, we see them find a dead body, which they also remove. To viewers the scene can look so dismal that it appears to be hopeless. How on earth could people survive being crushed by pounds of concrete, and how can these men continue to do this challenging work day after day? The answer lies in persistence and hard work. “Life requires sacrifice,” one man said. The crew spends as long as they need to save every last person they can.
In addition to significant physical sacrifice, these men are making great mental sacrifices. The documentary shows the men travelling to Turkey for a month of training in improved rescue techniques. While there, they watch on TV the news of airstrikes back home and yet are unable to help. One man lost his brother while he was away on training. “Every time I’m on a mission,” a White Helmet named Khalid Farah said, “I think of my family.”
- “All Lives Are Precious and Valuable.”
Despite being surrounded by so much loss of life, the documentary shows that with every airstrike, the White Helmets’ motivation to save lives grows stronger. “Any human being, if they need our help, it’s our duty to save them,” Abu Omar said.
“I consider them all to be my family,” another White Helmet rescuer, Mohammed Farah explained. “A child [in need] is like my son . . . I cannot explain it.” He went on to describe a rescue mission that has stuck with a lot of the men. After working for most of a day on a particularly destructive bombing, the men were losing steam. Then they heard an unmistakable noise coming from the rubble—a baby’s cry. After the building collapse, a newborn baby had somehow survived. Just hearing the sound gave the men renewed energy to keep digging. Finally, after sixteen hours of work, the men unearthed the baby, still alive.
After rescuing the baby—which was shown in the film and trailer—the men started calling the little boy the “miracle baby” to remind them the value of their efforts. “All lives are precious and valuable,” one said.
- “Tomorrow Will Be Better.”
“Tomorrow will be better,” one of the older members of the group says. Even in the midst of so much destruction, saving innocent children from the wreckage reminds the White Helmets that there is hope for the future. The men visited the miracle baby, named Mahmoud, later in the film. They all hugged and kissed the baby, who had grown into a toddler as the war raged on—his growing, chubby self serving as a reminder to the White Helmets that their work continues to make a difference long after any one rescue ends.
This perseverance resonates in the White Helmets’ motto: “To Save a Life is to Save All Humanity.”
“Patience, persistence, hard work, hope” —these are the things one White Helmet lists as the virtues necessary for him to keep doing his work. He might also have added courage: Since their rescue work started in 2013, at least 130 White Helmets have died in the line of duty. But their recovery efforts removing victims from the rubble have saved more than 58,000 lives.
“Does anyone need rescuing?” one White Helmet calls, as he inspects a ruined building after a bombing. As heartbreaking as it is to know a whole war-torn region needs rescuing, it is heartening to see the courage of men who will respond to the human call of duty, one rescue at a time.