Review: The White Helmets is a Humane Look at a Humanitarian Crisis

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By Abby Lass


“Allahu akbar!”

In the minds of many, this emphatic shout– literally “God is greater” in Arabic– accompanies images of innocents being massacred or planes flying into buildings. No matter your personal affiliation with Islam, this phrase seems to be at the heart of what many Americans view as our nation’s greatest terrorist threat.

The White Helmets, a Netflix documentary released on the streaming service last month, turns this perception on its head.

The 40-minute film starts with an explosion and spends the subsequent minutes watching dauntless civilians do their best to save their neighbors from the rubble. The chant is clearly audible as a small child in polka dot shorts is lifted from the smoke and given a second chance at life. The moment lasts for a matter of seconds, but this tiny exchange is enough to make a person realize how entirely wrong their ideas about the Middle East are.

The film draws its title from the group is examines. The White Helmets, also known as the Syria Civil Defense, is an organization comprised of 2,900 civilians across the country. It’s members, who were communally nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, are Syria’s first responders after an attack, and are credited with saving over 58,000 lives since the organization was created in 2013.

The documentary is a mix of interviews and action. It assumes a minimal level of knowledge on the part of the viewer about the Syrian humanitarian crisis, but does an impressive job of making this global phenomenon feel intensely personal. In it, we listen to former blacksmiths and tailors talk not in cerebral statistics or mind-numbing rhetoric, but with a sense of sincerity and optimism you’ll likely not find on this hemisphere. Their sense of camaraderie and compassion as they risk their lives and spend months away from their families in order to better help their communities is nothing short of magnificent.

To be clear, the film is not sappy. People die, historic cities are leveled, and the international community is mildly apathetic at best. But what this film does is provide the outside world with an understanding of how the Syrian people have managed to keep going as long as they have.

There’s a sentiment that gets repeated in various forms many times throughout the film, and it’s one we would all do well to learn: “If any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind.” This phrase lies at the heart of a religion that is still deeply misunderstood in our country, and it is arguably one of the noblest mantras a person can stand behind.

The White Helmets is not a political statement or a plea to the international community to do it’s part. It simply shares the truth of these seemingly otherworldly people, and makes only one request: do not forget about them.

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Abby Lass is the managing editor of arts and an avid reader of Percy Jackson. She has a deep passion for overzealous rants, overcommitment, and excessive analysis.