The White Helmets (2016)

Impression: One of the reasons I don’t own a TV or why I self-curate the little news I read is that I can’t deal with the 24-hour-news cycle, and the reality-TV style in which war can now be portrayed in real-time. Other than occasionally at airports, I actually have no idea what news channels show these days, but I assume with the fast internet connections and everyone owning cell phones that they have first person narratives of any traumatic event anywhere in the world, and that they play it over and over again. It’s possible I am wrong, but I really don’t want to watch it to find out. In the early 90s when the all-news-all-the-time channels were just starting, I had just moved from a country that was about to plunge into a civil war. The personal connection to what I was seeing on screen sucked me in: I watched more hours of CNN Headline News than I can count. I don’t know if this has changed, but the amount of new information updated each half hour was miniscule, and anything worth knowing for a whole day could have been summarized in 1-2 minutes. But instead, the willing audiences were constantly bombarded by the same footage and same images.

It’s hard for me to rate documentaries in general, but specifically this one as a film, since it’s more about its importance in documenting a place and time. And it IS an important place and time to document. There are scenes where the camera goes out of focus, because it’s the only way to capture what’s going on when people are running out of an exploding building. But there are also artsy shots of raindrops on boots. The White Helmets, pull people out of rubble: some are shown being found dead, a few days old baby is being shown found alive after a 14 hour search. The men go to a training in Turkey to learn about techniques and more advanced technology for their rescue missions, but also presumably to recharge. While not in the training, they are constantly on their cellphones communicating with family back home or watching the news. The psychological toll is massive.

All I take away from this movie is: war is horrible. Real people dying and getting maimed is horrible, I don’t care what your ideology is. But apparently having the ability to watch other people suffer in real time, has done nothing for our ability as humans to empathize. Because we still fight wars, we still wave flags and we still glorify war heros and minimize casualties. You would think if the books or movies showing war as horrible have not done it, having it all brought into your living room in real-time would have changed things, but no. Maybe because we have seen so many fake versions of it? Maybe because it’s just too much and we can’t really handle it and process it as real?  Maybe in the 100+ years of cinema we have moved so far past Lumière’s train, that now everything on screen is easily dismissed as “not real” or “not really happening” or “nothing I can do anything about.”

Facts: The White Helmets are a group of civilians in Syria who rush to dig people out of rubble after each of the many bombing raids, this is a documentary showing some of what they do.

Extra: This was the 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Short Subject.

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