Despite the last minute absence of their Syrian cinematographer from the 89th annual Academy Awards, The White Helmets team have something to celebrate: an Oscar win.
It was the first for filmmaking duo Joanna Natasegara and Orlando von Einsiedel who were nominated once before for their 2014 film Virunga.
The film, shot in Turkey and Syria, offers a close look at the work of the Nobel Peace Prize nominated Syrian Civil Defense. Known as the White Helmets, these volunteers have chosen to stay behind in Syria to act as first response teams pulling civilians out of the rubble in the wake of bombings.
While accepting the award, von Einsiedel read a statement from the White Helmet’s leader Raed Al Saleh. “We are so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organization is guided by a verse in the Koran: ‘To save one life is to save all of humanity.’ We have saved more than 82,000 civilian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world.”
The duo captured interviews and footage of the White Helmets at a training camp in Turkey where they taught white helmet Khaled Khatib, 21, advanced cinematography techniques and upgraded the camera he had previously been using. Khatib then risked his life in Syria saving others while also documenting the process for the documentary.
He was originally planning to attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles with Natasegara and von Einsiedel but was denied entry to the U.S. last minute.
“We’d always discussed that if we were ever fortunate enough to be nominated, of course we wanted Raed Al Saleh, the leader of the White Helmets and Khaled Khatib, the cinematographer, to join us,” said Natasegara over the phone in the weeks before the ceremony while last minute attempts to secure Khatib’s entry to the U.S. were being made.
While discussions of the conflict in Syria often invoke religion as a main cause, Natasegara said that religion, in this case Islam, was the main motivator in the risky humanitarian work that the White Helmets carry out.
“We think that the 30 white helmets were completely motivated by their faith,” she said, speaking of the time she spent at the trainee camp in Turkey. “It seemed to be the reason they believed there was hope and the reason they got up every day in the face of such horror.”
She said the all-male team were devout. “They showed enormous compassion and respect,” she said, “they prayed five times a day and lived their religion in such a beautiful way.”
This lived religion is captured in the film which was originally intended to be a feature-length documentary.
After some shooting, the two filmmakers realized they needed to edit and release the film immediately so viewers could watch it as soon as possible.
“We felt it wouldn’t be right to spend two years making this film,” said von Einsiedel in an interview on the day of the Oscar nominees luncheon, “because what’s happening in Syria is so urgent.”
With distribution through Netflix and now an Oscar win, it seems the move has paid off.
“On an immediately level on our film we recognize what an enormous privilege it is to be able to use the platform of the Academy to be able to shout loudly about the hero in our film,” said von Einsiedel. “It brings it to an audience that otherwise might not have any idea about our film. we’re really proud to be able to use that platform.”
Natasegara said she is particularly proud of the film because, “it shows that Syrians have pride and dignity and respect for their own people,” she said before adding, “it’s completely counter for many of the narratives we see about Muslim males specifically and about Syrians in general.”
Before leaving the stage with his award, von Einsiedel asked academy members to stand in a move intended to show solidarity with Syria and the need to bring the six year war to a close.
The White Helmets can currently be streamed on Netflix.