'The White Helmets' Director Orlando von Einsiedel on Finding Hope Amid Despair With Nat Geo's 'Lost and Found'

Credit: Vivien Killilea / Getty
Orlando von Einsiedel

The Oscar-winning director focuses his lens on the devastating Rohingya crisis and the world's largest refugee camp for his latest documentary short.

It's been more than two years since British director Orlando von Einsiedel won the Oscar for documentary short The White Helmets, a harrowing look at the daily heroisms of volunteer rescue workers in the Syria Civil Defense.

The award would prove to be Netflix's first taste of Academy success (he'd already landed them a nomination in 2015 for Virunga), and while the streamer has since added several more gold statuettes to its collection, Einsiedel hasn't sat still. Last year he turned the camera on his own family for the emotionally raw Evelyn, which explored the death of his brother and recently landed on Netflix. And Wednesday marks the limited theatrical release of Lost and Found, which bowed in Telluride last month.

The first short from National Geographic Documentary Films and backed by the Nobel Prize, Lost and Found sees Einsiedel back in familiar geopolitical territories, this time on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh in the world's largest refugee camp, a temporary city that sprang up after the latest brutal campaign of ethnic and religious persecution that has driven more than 700,000 Rohingya from their homes. But in this bleakness, Ensiedel finds hope in the form of a man dedicated to reuniting parents with their lost children.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Einsiedel discusses why he looks to shine a light on humanity in the darkest of moments, dealing with a Russia-backed propaganda campaign in the wake of The White Helmets and working toward his first narrative film.

How did Lost and Found come about?

I was introduced to the Nobel Prize organization, who wanted to try to tell some stories about the work of previous peace prize winners. I suggested they maybe do some short docs about the legacy of organizations that had won, which ended up drawing us to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. They do work all over the world, but at the moment one of the places where their work is most acute is the crisis going on with the Rohingya.

The guiding light for a lot of what I end up doing is looking at people that ultimately inspire me and give me faith back in humanity. And I know this is an absolute cliche, but while war may bring out the absolute worst in people, it also brings out the best. So we started looking at the Rohingya crisis and found the story of this man, Kamal Hussein, who was basically a Rohingya refugee 20 years ago.

He fled as a 7-year-old child, and two years ago when this latest crisis emerged, as hundreds of thousands were pouring over the border [into Bangladesh], a woman came up to him crying and saying, "I've lost my daughter." There's now a camp of hundreds of thousands of people and a light bulb goes off in his mind. So he hires a microphone and starts announcing about the lost daughter. Word of mouth goes around, and five hours later this man brings this little girl to him. So then he devotes his life to it, buys bigger speakers, with the UNHCR helping to provide some infrastructure. And now he's been doing that every day.

So essentially the doc is an uplifting piece looking to shine a light on humanity in the midst of horror?

You've described it better than I could! A few years ago, as a company [Grain Media], we made a political film about the Rohingya, with all the context and all the politics. And frankly no one watched it, if I'm honest. And I hope this version of the story, because it's a really human story, cuts through.

When you're exploring such large-scale crises and conflicts where there's such despair, do you think telling stories that offer some sort of hope is the best way to reach an audience?

Absolutely you need hope, and it's very easy to switch off. This is almost the genesis of The White Helmets. I like to think of myself as someone who makes an effort to watch the news about conflicts to understand them. And I found, with Syria, it was so upsetting that it was impossible to engage with it until we came across these heroes. And that suddenly felt like a story that could engage people and show there was hope and there were genuine superheroes plucking babies out of the rubble.

Around the time of The White Helmets, and Feras Fayyad's Oscar-nominated feature doc Last Men in Aleppo, there was a lot of noise from an online propaganda campaign — spread mostly by Russian media and the alt-right — trying to link the White Helmets to al-Qaida. Did you feel any of that?

In making this film and looking into this as a story, we came across these accusations and thought to ourselves, as everyone does, "Are these guys the people we think they are?" Then we did a proper assessment of the evidence and saw that it was absolute — none of it was true. When the film came out, of course they started to attack us.

How? Just online?

Certainly online. But at Toronto, which was the second festival we launched at, there was a picket line of people. They'd taken the Netflix poster and poured blood over it. It was unbelievable.

Who was doing all this?

There are obviously people who are paid to do this — troll factories where there are salaried employees whose day job is to go on the forums and social media and spread this complete nonsense. There's all of that, and then there are people on the far right and far left, for whom it sort of fits into their worldview, being the imperialist forces of the West are only interested in regime change in Syria, because that's what they did in Iraq and Libya.

In some ways this is very plausible, but what they end up doing is defending Assad, who is effectively a modern-day Hitler who has massacred hundreds of thousands of his own people. Of course, we've seen Western imperialism fail all over the place, but it's also true that Assad is a mass murderer.

What else happened?

We received death threats, on my social media accounts and to the office. We ended up changing the security situation at the office. You just never know. The flurry of people who picked up on this. [British far-right figurehead] Tommy Robinson did an entire 10-minute rant on YouTube about our film. I think he called it the Islamitization of Hollywood. But it's crazy the world of people that get sucked into this issue.

Following The White Helmets' win was there a sudden rush of projects thrust in your direction? What was that experience like?

This might sound strange, but the actual leap was much bigger after Virunga. Because we were nominated and I guess we went from "obscurity" to being put on the radar, that was a bigger leap than winning. In the documentary world at least we were already known at that point. For sure, projects were offered, but I remember distinctly after Virunga there was a waterfall of projects. It wasn't like that after winning.

Was there any pressure to go down the feature narrative route?

Not pressure … a desire! I didn't start making docs to get into features. I'll always make documentaries. But I'd love to do features too. Actually the next project I'm doing is scripted.

Can you talk about it?

I can, because we're shooting in six weeks. It's not a feature; it's a short, probably 40 minutes, about the world running out of water. That's the big framework. There are cities with millions of people that are running out of water. And it's going to happen to cities in Europe and America in the next 20 years.

So is this story set in the future?

No, it's a true story. I've got to be careful because it's very political. I can't say where, but basically there's a city of tens of millions of people that started to run out of water about a decade ago. This is a story about a criminal network that started to steal water from poor areas, pumping tankers into the water supply, and selling it to rich areas. They were making hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It's a story that follows someone who cottoned onto this and was assassinated. It's a bleak future!

Why can't you say where?

There are some powerful people involved in the story, and they'll be exposed once it comes out. So while we're shooting, for safety, I'd rather not.

You deal with a fair amount of grief and misery in different parts of the planet. Is it difficult to move from one project to another without getting too weighed down by everything you've seen and heard?

Genuinely, it's a real privilege to meet people like the White Helmets or like the rangers of Virunga or Kamal from Lost and Found. I don't say it lightly, but that is probably the best part of my job, and these are people who make you question yourself about the way you live in the world and make you want to be better. That's an immense privilege.

The other part is that I 100 percent internalize the stress of all of these projects. I definitely went a bit gray making Virunga. During White Helmets I inadvertently plucked out all my beard because the footage was so harrowing. When I made this film about my family, I came out in what I thought were mosquito bites, but they were these big red welts all over my body. Clearly the stress internalizes itself and comes out in some physical manifestation.