The White Helmets


A profile in courage.

A profile in courage.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Khaled Farah, Mohammed Farah, Abu Omar, Khaled Omar. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

 

The civil war that rages in Syria has become a political mess as the citizens of that country have to endure military bombings, the depredations inflicted upon them by their own government as well as the harsh occupation in some places by ISIS. It’s no wonder that refugees are pouring out of that country, trying to find safety and sanity.

But not everyone is leaving. Even in cities like Aleppo there are people still trying to cling to their homes in the hope that things will get better, but even so there are regular bombings and with bombings come people buried in rubble. That’s where the Syrian Civil Defense comes in. Nicknamed “the White Helmets” for their distinctive protective headgear, they go into terribly dangerous situations, into buildings that have been bombed and are structurally unsafe in order to pull out people who are injured or trapped.

We follow three members of that group in Aleppo (the SCD operates throughout Syria wherever they’re needed)  none of whom were trained professionals prior; one was a construction worker who built homes; another a tailor and the third a blacksmith. In fact, they are sent to Turkey to receive the training they desperately need to be more effective. They go unarmed and they fire no shots in anger at anyone – “I think it’s more important to rescue a soul than to take a soul,” says one laconically.

All three are family men who go to work desperately worried about their homes and loved ones, who are at risk every single day simply by virtue of the fact they live in Aleppo. While they are in Turkey they joke with one another, even occasionally playing practical jokes. They talk about their children and their hopes for them. To a man, they all believe that things will eventually get better.

But as the conflict approaches its seventh year with no end in sight, it’s hard not to admire these men who took it upon themselves to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. The group’s motto is a quote from the Koran; “save one life and you save humanity.” They are certainly putting that to good use.

In another era, these men would have qualified for John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. However, the organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In three years they have saved (as of the release of the film) more than 58,000 lives while 130 of their number have paid the ultimate price.

Do be warned that some of the footage is pretty intense. Most of it was filmed by the White Helmets themselves; the situations were far too dangerous to send camera crews in. Director von Einsiedel didn’t even come to Syria, although he did spend time with the subjects in Turkey. He had more than 70 hours of footage to go through, much of it unusable because it was too graphic. However even of what is shown some of it may be disturbing to the sensitive although when they pull the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble of an apartment building (a one-week old baby who survived a direct hit to her home) one can’t help but cry along with the rescuers who are also crying.

The documentary is only 40 minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. The downside is that it shows mankind at its worst – you can’t help but feel infuriated when you watch bombs hitting civilian targets with the knowledge that they were likely specifically targeted. The upside is that you also see mankind at its best – which makes you think that maybe this species might have a future after all.

REASONS TO GO: The message is uplifting and powerful. The three subjects are engaging and appealing in their ordinariness.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is not suitable for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are many disturbing images and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Khaled Omar, the White Helmet who is depicted here pulling the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble, died in an airstrike in August 2016.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Miss Sharon Jones!

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He Named Me Malala


Malala Yousafzai reflective.

Malala Yousafzai reflective.

(2015) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, Khushal Yousafzai, Atal Yousafzai, Mobin Khan. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Heroes are few and far-between in this age of self-centered me-first consumerism. We’re all so wrapped up in getting more likes on our posts, or having more YouTube followers that we lose track of the important things. These are First World problems admittedly, but when you think of the struggles of millions of young woman who are being prevented from receiving an education, our problems pale in significance.

Malala Yousafzai was named for Malalai of Pashtu, a folk hero who in 1880 at the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War rallied fleeing Afghan troops back onto the battlefield and towards eventual victory at the cost of her own life. She was 17 (or in some accounts 18) years old when she died. Some relatives urged her father to change her name because it augured an early death for the child but Ziauddin was resolute.

As most people are aware, the then-14 year old Pakistani girl spoke out against the Taliban’s edict preventing any female from attending any school in the Swat Valley. She felt this to be unfair and ridiculous but on October 9, 2013 she was shot in the face by a Taliban gunman. Her condition was so severe that she was flown to England for medical treatment on a specially outfitted Saudi jet.

She eventually recovered from her wounds but was disfigured slightly and has issues moving certain muscles in her face, leaving her with a somewhat crooked smile which is actually quite endearing. And she has lost none of her fire or passion as she continues to crusade for the rights of young girls to be educated, from Nigeria to the Middle East and beyond.

Along the way she meets with dignitaries (like President Obama), cultural icons (like Bono of U2) and media stars (like Jon Stewart). Her message never flags and her voice never wavers. She is committed to her cause which in itself is a minor miracle; how many teens do you know that are committed to anything?

&And she is very much a teenage girl, giggling and blushing as she views pictures of Roger Federer and Brad Pitt online, bantering with her brothers and trying to continue to do well with her studies. Ziauddin moved the entire family to England as it was no longer safe for them in Swat Valley as the Taliban has affirmed that they will kill her Malala the moment she sets foot there. What big strong men these are to threaten a teenage girl. They are ideologically bankrupt.

Ideology is important in the story of Malala; when asked if he would like to see the man responsible for shooting his daughter brought to justice, Ziauddin says no. “It wasn’t a man that shot Malala, it was an ideology.” Powerful words indeed, cloaked in truth as they are.

Guggenheim, auteur of An Uncomfortable Truth and Waiting for ‘Superman,’ gets access to the Yousafzai in England and his sequences of Malala at home and relaxed are the best in the movie. The more we see her as a person and the less we see her as an icon, the more powerful her message becomes.

But it’s hard not to see her as an icon, because her courage is so extraordinary and her voice so powerful and clear. If Guggenheim is guilty of hero worship – and he is – it is understandable. The girl’s natural force is like a tsunami hitting the shore but instead of causing damage it is sweeping away intolerance.

Guggenheim uses pastel animations to show the stories of both Malala and her namesake (although there is film footage available – and it is used – much of her young life was not documented and so cracks need to be filled) which can be intrusive at times because they are so stylized, but the animation itself is beautiful. The use of animation in documentaries is rapidly becoming a cliche and great care should be taken in its use for at least awhile.

We do see very little of Malala’s mother and that is on purpose. She is a rather shy and retiring woman, having not received the education that Malala and her father value. Instead, she is more of a traditional Pakistani wife and mother and prefers not to labor under the intense glare of the international spotlight that her daughter must now embrace. It is in no way denigrating her or her values, nor women in general as some ignorant critics have suggested; it is simply that some people don’t want to become famous.

This is one of those movies where the story trumps the technique. Malala Yousafzai is a profile in courage and is worthy of all the praise my inadequate talents can heap upon her, but this documentary is a little bit too by-the-book and too surface-oriented to really be truly remarkable. It’s serviceable and tells you the basic about Malala, who she is and what she has to say. You will come away admiring her but no more than you would from reading her Wikipedia entry and that’s the tragedy of this movie – if it had been half as compelling as its subject, this would have been a powerful experience indeed.

REASONS TO GO: The relationship between Malala and Ziauddin is touching. Her story is one that everyone should know.
REASONS TO STAY: Guilty of a little bit of hero-worship (and so am I).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and some thematic material that might be upsetting to young children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malala is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared it with Indian child rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi in 2014).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gandhi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Winter on Fire