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White Helmets (2016)Courtesy Netflix

Talking Trump, Syria and humanity with Orlando Von Einsiedel

The director’s Oscar-nominated ‘The White Helmets’ is a stunning, visceral look at the grim terror of the Syrian civil war

In the opening scenes of Orlando Von Einsiedel’s Oscar-nominated The White Helmets, viewers hear the sound of an explosion. Seconds later, the pitch black screen snaps onto the streets of Aleppo, revealing the heart-stopping damage that has been done. Someone’s home, half destroyed and with debris still smoking, has been bombed. The shaky camera then pans to a group of people scrambling into the ruins to save any survivors. Three children are pulled from the wreckage, before – in less than a minute – another explosion jolts the camera. The screen cuts almost instantly back to darkness.

Von Einsiedel’s latest documentary, currently available to view on Netflix, is a rare glimpse at the everyday reality of the Syrian civil war. Despite being considered a no-go zone for journalists, the film manages to get in amongst the country’s carnage: joining the awe-inspiring White Helmets as they risk their lives to rescue whoever needs them. It’s a powerful watch, with viewers getting exposed to both the best and worst sides of humanity in just under 40 minutes.

The White Helmets was filmed by both Von Einsiedel – who shot scenes at a Turkish training camp – and cinematographer Khaled Khateeb. The latter, who doubles up himself as a volunteer White Helmet, was responsible for shooting all footage in Aleppo. Unfortunately, while the film has been nominated for a Best Short Documentary Academy award, recent border controls from Donald Trump (his notorious ‘Muslim ban’) now mean that Khaled – as well as White Helmet leader Raed Saleh – will be unable to attend the ceremony. “This was one of the most emotional films that we’d ever worked on,” says Von Einsiedel. “We’re all a bit worried. We wanted to bring them with us.” We caught up with the Brockley-based filmmaker to find out more. 

News broke earlier this week about how Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ has affected Raed Saleh and Khaled Khateeb’s U.S entry. How are you all feeling?

Orlando von Einsiedel: We’re thrilled to receive an Oscar nomination, but right from the beginning we always thought if we were to ever receive an accolade like this one of the first things we’d want to do is bring the heroes of the film with us. Then, with the news in the last 48 hours, everything has changed. The executive order seems to suggest there are exceptions but it’s not crystal clear how someone qualifies for those exceptions. So, we’re in the process of trying to work out what is possible and we obviously hope we can get our guys into the U.S. 

“There’s so much sadness and tragedy that it makes you want to lose faith in the direction we’re heading in. But then, every now and again, you come across individuals or groups of people that absolutely reignite your faith in humanity” – Orlando von Einsiedel

What are your thoughts on the current situation in the U.S? Has the growing injustice made you think about turning your lens there?

Orlando von Einsiedel: We’ll have to see how things plan out. We have an immediate set of projects that we’re already working on for the nearer future, but I guess the kind of films we make are when we find some form of injustice that moves us and often based around people and heroes that inspire us.

What draws you to a certain place? How do you choose your next location?

Orlando von Einsiedel: I think as a film-making team we’re often drawn to stories of real-life heroes. There’s so much sadness and tragedy that it makes you want to lose faith in the direction we’re heading in. But then, every now and again, you come across individuals or groups of people that absolutely reignite your faith in humanity. I would say that the majority of projects we’ve worked on as a film team over the last six years have tended to be when we’ve found people like that, and that might go from skateboarding girls in Afghanistan, to rangers in Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo, through to volunteer rescue workers in Syria. 

How do you come across these people?

Orlando von Einsiedel: You might read about a story online, or read a little segment in the newspaper and you think that on the surface that’s a story you believe would inspire others and it’s something you’d really like to go and show, tell and share with other people. But the only way to really know if it’s got legs is to almost just turn up. Often you do just turn up to see if it’s got the depth that it needs to be a longer form film.

Does that ever just not work?

Orlando von Einsiedel: Normally it becomes something very different to what you first thought it was. Certainly when we made Virunga, we went out purely to try and tell the story of these rangers rebuilding this part of Eastern Congo. But, very quickly we learned about the actions of the British oil company, so the story took a U-turn and became something quite different. Although, in the end, I’d still like to believe that the film did tell the story that we initially set out to tell.

The idea of hope is central to your films. Is it ever hard to stay positive, given all the terrible things you must see?

Orlando von Einsiedel: We often do make films from difficult parts of the world, and that does entail seeing and experiences very difficult things. Just making White Helmets affected a lot of our team that were in this process. I know on a very personal level I almost picked out my entire beard from nervousness and stress. But, ultimately the reason why the hope is always still there is because of the people that we are making films about and if they, through all the difficulties they’ve gone through, can still have hope then almost what right do we have to not have hope? And I’d say we always draw inspiration from the people in our films. 

Do you ever worry about the effects these kinds of projects have on your mental health?

Orlando von Einsiedel: Of course it is difficult, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But I actually think the majority of us, as a film team, come away with an abiding emotion and they make us want to be better ourselves. We all grappled making White Helmets – we all discussed, if war was to come to London or New York or any big Western city, would we have it in ourselves to do what these guys have done? To not flee, to not pick up a gun and to instead stay and save the lives of strangers? I think we all decided that we probably didn’t, and that troubles me! That makes me want to be better. 

“If war was to come to London or New York or any big Western city, would we have it in ourselves to do what these guys have done? To not flee, to not pick up a gun and to instead stay and save the lives of strangers?” – Orlando von Einsiedel

What was it like filming on the Turkish border? Did you ever feel unsafe? 

Orlando von Einsiedel: It’s nothing like how it would be if you were filming inside Syria. We’d watched a lot of footage on the White Helmets and we saw what they experienced inside Syria and the physical violence they experience every day. But, I think what we were all taken aback by is the emotional toll that this takes on them, even in the relative safety of being inside Turkey. The moment these guys finish the training course their phones start beeping as they go online, and each day news would come in of friends, family and colleagues that had been killed. It was unbearable to watch. Then, despite all of that, at the end of this training course they all couldn’t wait to go back in. To carry on living through that says so much about who these guys are.

How has The White Helmets been received in Syria? Do you know?

Orlando von Einsiedel: I think when most people see this film you can’t help but be incredibly moved by the bravery of the White Helmets. The pushback has come from Assad and supporters of the Assad regime who have tried to push a binary picture of what happens in Syria, and that’s between the Assad Government and everyone else, who are branded as terrorists. Supporters of Assad have certainly attacked the White Helmets, (but) they’ve been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and won the Right Livelihood Award. They are incredible human beings. 

How are they doing now? 

Orlando von Einsiedel: They’ve had a very difficult few months because Aleppo fell to the regime. Our film was based in Aleppo with the three characters; Khaled, Mohammed and Abu Omar, and it has been incredibly difficult for them if you could even imagine how much more difficult it could be in Syria. They lost everything, they lost all their homes and they all had to flee. It’s been tough and very sad.

Are you able to keep in contact with them?

Orlando von Einsiedel: Yeah, they’ve dispersed to other parts of Syria. Of the 100 or so White Helmets that were in Aleppo that have now gone to other parts of Syria, many of them are already continuing to do their work as rescue workers.

What about Virunga? I imagine youre still in touch with André, Rodrigue and Emmanuel from the park – how are they doing now?

Orlando von Einsiedel: We always continue to speak with all the people that we make films about. Joanna Natasegaram, the producer of Virunga, is now the communications director of Virunga National Park, so that is how tightly involved we often get. The guys in Virunga are doing well – tourism is going fantastic and they are pushing through really exciting projects. There’s hydro-schemes and all sorts of things so it’s very positive what is going on over there.

Have you ever felt drawn to go back to a place and revisit a story, or do a follow-up film?

Orlando von Einsiedel: Always! It’s a constant battle to not go back and immediately do a follow-up. I’d almost rather do follow-ups because it’s familiar ground and you already know and love all the people there so it’s a battle to not do that. 

What’s next for you?

Orlando von Einsiedel: We’re looking at a much smaller, personal project next. We’ve spent a long time telling stories about other people who have experienced tragedy and going through enormous difficulty and there’s a story much closer to home that we think is probably right to tell now. Going forwards, we’re also working on a number of scripted projects. If certain stories don’t allow themselves to be told in a documentary way then we’d like to tell them in a fictional way. We just want to tell stories and the medium depends on what the story is. I would say a lot of the shorter documentary stuff that we’ve worked on is often borrowed by fictional, story-telling techniques – so it feels like a very natural progression.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length. White Helmets is available to view on Netflix now