A film celebrating the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, has won an Oscar for best short documentary, while other films speaking about Syrian migrants were among the nominee, helping to shed light again on the Syrian civilians’ suffer.
The eponymously titled White Helmets, a 40-minute Netflix film, gives a window into the lives of the group’s volunteers as they scramble to pull people from the rubble of buildings flattened in bombing raids.
Accepting the Academy Award, director Orlando von Einsiedel urged the audience to get out of their seats and call for an end to Syria’s six-year crisis , which led to a standing ovation.
Von Einsiedel read a statement from White Helmets founder Raed al-Saleh in which he thanked the academy and said the group had saved tens of thousands of lives since it was formed in 2014.
“We are so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organisation is guided by a verse from the Quran: to save one life is to save all of humanity,” Saleh’s statement said.
“We have saved more than 82,000 Syrian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world.”
In a short acceptance speech — posted online after a documentary won the Oscar — Raed Saleh appealed to governments around the world “to stop the bloodshed of the Syrian people.”
“I ask everyone who is listening and seeing me now across the world to take a stand. Stop the killing of civilians,” he said, speaking from southern Turkey.
Syrian cinematographer Khaled Khatib, who worked on the documentary, was unable to attend after being barred from entering the US despite being granted a visa.
US officials reportedly discovered “derogatory information” about him, according to a document seen by the Associated Press news agency.
The film’s producer, Joanna Natasegara, told AP on Sunday that the decision was “sad and confusing”.
Watani: My Homeland
The 2016 “The White Helmets” was one of two films about Syria nominated in this year’s category for Best Documentary Short. The other, “Watani: My Homeland,” focuses on the voyage of one family from war into exile.
Taken together, the films offer glimpses of Syria’s broader tragedy, sending a strong message as to why the country’s exodus continues, and why for many, the decision to leave their homeland is among the hardest they will ever make.
The pain of that gulf is also a key theme of “Watani,” the other Oscar-nominated offering filmed in Syria.
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen, the 40-minute documentary follows the journey of Hala Kamil, a woman from Aleppo whose husband fought as a rebel in the uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
When he is kidnapped by Islamic State militants, she is forced to decide whether to wait for him as the fighting closes in or to take their children to safety.
“Hala might be physically in Germany now, but she’s emotionally trapped in her past,” said Mettelsiefen, who shot the footage on successive trips to Aleppo before the rise of the Islamic State made journeys through northern Syria impossible.
“Going through the hours of interviews, Hala’s own feelings became clear. She knew she would have to leave Syria, and in the process to feel like she had died inside, in order for her children to live,” he said. “This wasn’t a choice that any of them had asked for.”
That message is echoed by the millions of Syrian refugees across neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
The real win
The White Helmet volunteers have operated for years in rebel-held zones in Syria, helping pull survivors from the rubble of buildings hit by airstrikes and bombardments.
The group has won several humanitarian awards and was thought to be in the running for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which went to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his role in helping negotiate a peace deal to end a civil war of more than 50 years.
However, their work isn’t easy as they face death with every rescue operation they conduct.
Rescue workers in Syria are at risk of being killed in so-called “double tap” air raids that target them as they arrive at the scene of a strike. The group says that many of its volunteers have been killed.
more than 150 White Helmets have been killed in the line of duty. Some were bombed at the site of an earlier blast. Last fall, the Aleppo headquarters seen in “The White Helmets” film was hit twice in the same day.
As the Academy Award proceedings began in Hollywood, the White Helmets posted news to their Twitter account that toxic substances had been dropped on civilian homes in the countryside around Damascus, leaving people in the area struggling to breathe.
Another message showed the rescue workers digging a child out from the twisted rubble of his home in the northwestern province of Idlib.
“When ‘The White Helmets’ was announced a winner of the Academy Award, our team in Ariha, Idleb was rescuing a child,” read the accompanying message.
“That’s the real win.”
When "The White Helmets" was announced a winner of the academy award, our team in Ariha, Idleb was rescuing a child. And that's the real win https://t.co/BapxDiFuMS
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) February 27, 2017
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.