Aleppo Documentary Filmmakers: "We Worry About the People We Spent Time With"

The creators of 'The White Helmets,' the Oscar-shortlisted documentary about the Syrian Civil Defense, talk about the ongoing conflict and the numbing effect of the 24-hour news cycle.

The world looked on in horror this week as an attempt to evacuate civilians out of the war-torn city in eastern Aleppo was halted. The four-year conflict between the Syrian Army and rebels forces have seen thousands die, with many still trapped in the rubble-filled city. 

The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets — a group of volunteer rescue workers that rush in after attacks to try and save people amid the ruins — have responded to the humanitarian crisis. And their efforts are the subject of the short documentary The White Helmets, which is one of the 10 short docs that have made the shortlist for Oscar consideration. 

The film, currently available on Netflix, was directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and produced by Joanna Natasegara, who both were Oscar-nominated for their 2015 documentary feature Virunga. They originally expected their new film would also be a feature-length documentary, but then a sense of urgency took over and they opted to move forward more quickly with a short film.

The Hollywood Reporter talked to von Einsiedel and Natasegara about the risks in making the film, their experiences with the White Helmets ("these are people like us") and the impact of repetitive news coverage ("You start to lose empathy for the situation").

How did you find out about the White Helmets?

Von Einsiedel: We first heard about them through some friends that were working alongside them. I think our interest to make a film about them was driven by the fact that this conflict has been going on for a number of years and, I can say from a personal point of view, that it is becoming increasingly hard to engage with it because we see the same footage and the same upsetting scenes and the same political deadlock, over and over again. Once people start to switch off, you start to lose empathy for the situation. We were very much drawn to trying to tell a universal, human story. In this case, a story about bravery and real heroes. It ‘s easy in our world at the moment to get depressed at its current situation and to lose faith in the future. So when we find stories like the White Helmets, that remind us that there is hope.

What was the filming process like in a conflict zone?

Von Einsiedel: For a lot of our careers, me and Joanna have been filming in conflict zones, but we didn’t actually film in Aleppo. We filmed on the training course that sits on the border of Syria and Turkey and we collaborated with the White Helmets to gather footage from Aleppo. The White Helmets film a lot of their rescues to share with the world, as living proof. We worked particularly close with a White Helmet named Khaled Khatib, who was a teenager when the conflict started and has been documenting it for the past five, six years. He began on a mobile phone and progressed on to better cameras. 

Natasegara: It’s key to point out that the part of Aleppo that our film team is from, eastern Aleppo, is quite a big city and is a rebel-held area. It is also the area where most of the journalists that we have heard about in the past five years were kidnapped and subsequently beheaded. There are basically no Western journalists there and there have not been for about two to three years. I think James Foley was one of the last, and that obviously didn’t end well. So we made the risk assessment that we could not [go into eastern Aleppo] for our own safety and it would also be a risk for the White Helmets to take us there.

What were some of the biggest logistical difficulties you had to overcome?  

Von Einsiedel: There is a whole catalog of logistical difficulties. Sharing material from a conflict zone is always problematic, especially with spotty internet. Of course, you make connections with people when you spend lots of time with them and then, of course, you deeply worry about them as you continue working on the project together. So, that is problematic, too.

While filming The White Helmets, did you find being an objective filmmaker and an empathetic human being a hard line to walk?

Natasegara: I don’t think that line was difficult to walk. Because we witnessed so much footage to get to the end result of what you see in the film, from a journalistic point of view, you actually manage to see a consistent story coming out — a consistent story of human rights violations. The level and scale of the story is such that you feel confident that the story is objective. But, of course, living with these people you come to feel personally involved in their stories and you care about them. You would be a very strange journalist if you did not. You need to have a certain level of humanity to understand the story that you are sharing with the world. So, yes, we worry about the people we spent time with, but we are very grateful for the story that they allowed us to tell.

Given the time and ability to do so, would you consider a follow-up story with the White Helmets?

Von Einsiedel: When we started this project, me and Joanna had a lot of discussion about whether this should be a feature-length film because there is such a big story to tell and there is so much to work through. In the end, we decided to make a short film, specifically, because of the urgency of the situation. We wanted to get this film out as quickly as possible and to make a feature takes two, maybe three years. But there is a lot of desire, I think from the both of us, to continue to work with the White Helmets and with this story in another capacity. In what form that takes — I don’t know if we are clear quite yet.  

What would you want people to know about Aleppo that you are not seeing in the 24-hour news cycle?  

Natasegara: The biggest thing for us is to realize that these are ordinary people and this is an ordinary city that was — before the war — was much like any other big city around the world. We had the privilege of living with over 30 White Helmets on the ground, day and night, making this film. That experience was so profound in terms of understanding that this is not an unknown war in an unknown country — it could happen to us. This is the story of people like us who are going into a situation that, if war came to our country, we would have to make the same decisions that we are making. And we would often discuss if we would do what the [White Helmets] do and we can’t come to the conclusion that we would because it is so dangerous and selfless.