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Citizenship

Inside the Heroic Story of the Oscar-Nominated 'White Helmets'

As the brutal civil war in Syria reaches its tragic sixth anniversary, one group of brave citizens shines brightly.

The White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group, have pulled more than 58,000 people from the rubble of ruined buildings. Made up of everyday Syrians who refuse to watch their country destroyed, more than 130 of them have been killed in the line of duty. You might have read about them before on Global Citizen, where we’ve been tracking their inspiring work.

Now, a documentary about their heroism has been nominated for an Oscar.

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I had a chance to chat chat to the film’s director, Orlando Von Einseindel, following a recent New York screening of the film, and he asked that we share with you the behind the scenes story, as he and his Producer Joanna Natasegara wrote for IndieWire last year on how they came to make the film:

“We were stunned when we first saw footage of them in action: a grainy YouTube video as they rescued a newborn baby from under three stories of a collapsed building. Much of our work over the past few years has focused on telling the inspiring stories of people who have been willing to risk their own lives for something bigger than themselves. We have wanted to share these tales of bravery not only because they reaffirm our faith in the good of humanity in a world shaded by so much darkness, but also because they inspire us to work harder for what we believe in.

The White Helmets we filmed were a group of humble and highly committed individuals, undoubtedly damaged by years of witnessing the most horrific sights imaginable on a daily basis, somehow maintaining an unshakeable determination to continue their work. In the West, far too often we are subjected to negative stereotypes of the Muslim males. In stark contrast, these men were among the gentlest and kindest we had ever met. They maintain an almost unbelievable sense of humor in spite of everything ­­— tying our dozing cinematographer’s leg to water coolers or breaking into karaoke on our minibuses’ PA system. Their compassion seemed to be their overwhelming trait.

But the hardships these people endure every day are hard to imagine. Much of the powerful footage in the film comes from the cameras of the White Helmets themselves. Some footage looks like it was shot on the set of a Paul Greengrass movie: ­­jets tearing through the sky dropping indiscriminate bombs, while people cower in the streets and White Helmets run towards the explosions. The difference is that the footage is viscerally real, so much so that we could only show a tiny percentage of the horror these people witness, without making the whole film completely unwatchable.

It is this ever-present danger that makes being a White Helmet what The Washington Post has called “the most dangerous job in the world.” More than 140 White Helmets have been killed in the line of duty, leaving behind wives and families. Tragically, even during the production of our film, the White Helmet members we were following lost colleagues, friends and family with unbearable frequency.”

So this weekend, as you consider whether to go see an Oscar-film, brace yourself, and watch White Helmets now on Netflix.