Monday, April 03, 2017

The White Helmets (Tuesday 4 April, The Better World Fringe at Belfast Film Festival)

When car bombs are exploding around your city and the Russian air force are dropping munitions from above, who is responsible for helping to rescue people trapped under the rubble? Volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defence – better known as the White Helmets – fulfil that role in their towns and cities.

Since 2013, over 3,000 brave and independent volunteers working in 120 centres across Syria have so far rescued 80,000 people. Over 150 White Helmets have lost their lives in the civil war. Many more have been injured.

When they hear jet aircraft approaching, these are the kind of guys who rush outside into the street to look up and see where the bombs are dropping rather than heading into a basement bunker. Clouds of dust linger above collapsed buildings. There are shrieks of panic in the streets everywhere they go. Listening equipment helps locate the living under the mounds of heavy concrete.

“Better to rescue a soul than to take one” says a member of the Aleppo White Helmet team. As first responders, they leave their political leanings behind them. Every life is precious. “It’s our duty to save them.”

The White Helmets documentary – which won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in February 2017 – tells the story of the civil defence team in the city of Aleppo.

These are not retired soldiers or career fire fighters. Over the course of 40 minutes we meet a former builder, a former blacksmith and a former tailor who now volunteer full time in their rescue roles.

Footage from helmet cameras shows the men rushing in where angels would fear to tread. “Our job depends on speed and accuracy” explains one rescuer, echoing the probable mantra of the pilots flying overhead. Yet the airborne bombs seem to fall all too often on civilian targets rather than military ones.

As well as encountering death on a daily basis as they race across the city in their truck to each new devastating scene, we watch the rescuers face up to the trauma of their own family and loved ones being caught up in attacks. While away in Turkey receiving vital training courses on techniques and equipment, several rescuers face anxious waits as the status of missing family members is tracked down.

“I’m willing to sacrifice by soul for the sake of the people” says one White Helmet. Tragically, while we watch archive footage of ten day old baby Mahmud being pulled alive from the rubble, his rescuer Khaled Omar Harrah died in an airstrike in August 2016, leaving behind his wife and two daughters.

Director Orlando Van Einsiedel captures the intense esprit de corps shown by the team as they perform their sacred, humanitarian duty. “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” Mixing together interviews with bodycam footage this short documentary explores the motivation of a brave team of rescue workers in Aleppo. It’s sobering viewing. Yet it’s full of hope amongst the suffering.

The White Helmets will be screened as part of the Belfast Film Festival in The MAC at 7pm on Tuesday 4 April as part of The Better World Film Fringe organised by CADA (the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies in Northern Ireland).

The film will be followed by a panel discussion chaired by Peter Anderson (NI’s head of Concern Worldwide) and featuring contributions from Noelle Fitzpatrick (Trócaire's Syria humanitarian officer), Anna Nolan (director of The Syria Campaign) https://thesyriacampaign.org/ and Declan Lawn (writer, broadcaster and BBC TV documentary maker).