The White Helmets was international news even before it won an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. Highlighting the work of Syria Civil Defence volunteers supporting victims of the country’s continuing conflict, the film attracted international acclaim and attention from a range of political and social commentators on its launch.
That focus increased when cinematographer Khaled Khateeb was unable to attend the ceremony after being barred from boarding a flight to the US from Turkey. The film’s Best Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar success increased the spotlight on two LSE alumni, its director Orlando von Einsiedel (MSc Anthropology and Development 2004-09) and producer Joanna Natasegara (MSc Human Rights 2004).
“When you are making a film you hope will have social impact, it is hard to describe just how incredible it is being nominated for one of the big American or British awards,” says Orlando. “We attracted an entirely new media profile, getting attention from the entertainment and celebrity press. All of a sudden we were hitting completely different target audiences, reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t have been interested. It shines a really bright spotlight on the work of The White Helmets and on the issues at the heart of the film.”
LSE alumni crossing paths
While Joanna and Orlando were postgraduate students at LSE in the 2000s, their paths didn’t actually cross on Houghton Street. Instead, their introduction came by chance. “I had been working on my previous film Virunga for about a year and it became pretty clear there was a gap in production,” says Orlando. “Britdoc Foundation, a non-profit organisation supporting documentary filmmaking, put me in touch with Joanna and she filled that gap very quickly. She is an incredible person, and we trust and understand each other creatively.”
“I was also the impact producer for Virunga, a role which is relatively new,” continues Joanna. “Our focus is on outreach, and on working strategically to use film to create a real-world impact. It’s about engaging and connecting with audiences – from cinema goers to high level policy makers – with a specific goal in mind.
That film is an obvious example: the aim was not only to tell the story of Virunga National Park’s heroic rangers, but to protect a UNESCO World Heritage site from oil exploration and to hold a British oil company to account for their activities in the area. The campaign around that was focused on engaging the public as well as industry and investors, to put pressure on the company to stop their activity – which was illegal under Congolese law – and to commit not to explore within the park boundaries.”
After the success of Virunga, which was nominated for an Academy Award, Joanna and Orlando embarked together on a new project: The White Helmets. “Joanna and I saw the footage of a baby being pulled from the rubble in the Syrian city of Aleppo – a shot that is in the film – and what really struck us was the fact that the rescue workers were ordinary people, civilians who had decided not to flee and not to fight, but to risk their lives to help victims,” comments Orlando.
That footage was the initial spark that ignited the project, but there were other strong reasons for making the film. “At that point, the Syrian war had been going on for five years. The public had started to disengage with the conflict and there was also a lot of misinformation about Muslims and Syrians,” continues Orlando. “We thought by telling this very powerful and compelling human story that cuts through the politics we could re-engage the public and shed light on what was happening to civilians on the ground.”
Making The White Helmets
Making the film was extremely challenging. Western journalists were not allowed inside Aleppo at the time, and the crew had to film on the Turkish-Syrian border. “We were invited to collaborate with the White Helmets and worked with Khaled – a very young white helmet who has been documenting the conflict since he was sixteen – and two of his colleagues.
They made the entire film possible, filming inside war-torn Aleppo and capturing footage in a dangerous environment.” While Orlando, Joanna and their team were used to making films in conflict zones so had an idea of what the situation might be like, they were still taken aback at the level of “emotional violence” Syrian civilians had to go through on a daily basis.
Orlando is enthusiastic about the possibilities that have opened up for independent filmmakers with the eruption of online platforms such as Netflix, which distributed The White Helmets. He sees them as very powerful tools with the potential to reach millions of people in countries across the world. “There is something really good about the algorithms of these platforms: after watching an action film, a very obscure documentary might be suggested as your next ‘watch’. That is amazing from the social impact point of view, as it brings documentary films to vast new audiences.”
Joanna agrees: “Documentary is a great way to tell stories, and film is a powerful tool to inspire people into action. Seeing people share their stories on screen is hugely impactful, it breeds empathy and understanding in ways that other mediums cannot. Watching those stories unfold on film helps audiences to connect with the subject matter, making it personal and meaningful to them.”
What is next for them? “Our next project is very inward-looking,” reveals Orlando. “There is a difficult story at the heart of my own family I’d like to tell. The only reason I can work on this now is because the team has become very close, and I feel we are ready to address something much closer to home.”
Find out more about The White Helmets on Netflix.