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Syrian Superheroes Or Propaganda Pawns?: Netflix's Documentary 'White Helmets' Is Already Dividing Opinions

12/09/2016 11:14 AM IST | Updated 13/09/2016 8:40 AM IST
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"Don't give mom a hard time, OK?" the trailer of Netflix's upcoming documentary White Helmets shows a Syrian Civil Defence (SCD) volunteer, a "White Helmet", kissing his child, and then stepping out in the dystopian background of the bombed-out city of Aleppo in Syria. He looks up at the sky, scanning it for planes and helicopters, which come and drop bombs every day, killing scores of people who, unfortunately, do not matter much to the world anymore.

The Syrian war is in its sixth year of existence, without an end in sight. In fact, it seems much more chaotic than it has in the past years, with lines being blurred between the "right" and "wrong" sides in the conflict. To put this in some perspective, earlier in the year reports suggested that CIA-backed groups and Pentagon-backed groups were in fact often fighting each other, with weapons given by none other than the US.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai went through the same cycle that the White Helmets are likely to experience with this Netflix documentary.

However, there are still a few beacons of hope in a land where millions of lives have been destroyed and historically great cities such as Aleppo (where Agatha Christie penned her famous novel Murder On The Orient Express at the then stately Baron Hotel) lie in ruins. Today, Aleppo is also home to the biggest chapter of the White Helmets, first responders who pull people out of rubble and provide aid even as the city is bombed with grim frequency. For their efforts, they have even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2014, journalist Matthieu Aikins published his article titled "Whoever Saves A Life", documenting the seven days he spent inside the "life-and-death world" of the White Helmets. During this period the White Helmets had started to get a lot of attention for being an entity of calm amidst the chaos that was everyday life for most Syrians now, with triumphant visuals and stories of them pulling kids out of the rubble. The job is not easy; they are the first responders to a bombing, and often the warplanes of President Bashar al-Assad's regime use a "double tap" strategy -- bombing the same place a second time as the White Helmets and locals gather to rescue people.

Now, Netflix's documentary, which is garnering a lot of attention, is set to divide opinions on the Syrian crisis once again. On Netflix's YouTube channel, the comments section (a grey area I seldom venture into, but did so this time) is divided almost on a near-perfect 50-50 scale between those who celebrate the White Helmets, with one user calling this "the best superhero movie of the year" to others labeling the SCD as an "ISIS/Al Nusra cleanup crew" and seeing the to-be-released film as propaganda. Another user comments, "Netflix exposes itself as supporting terrorism."

This is not the first time that heroism has been met with a backlash, of course.

These White Helmets do a job that is thankless, foolhardy and painfully inspiring -- all to save the lives of strangers largely left to their own devices...

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai went through the same cycle that the White Helmets are likely to experience with this Netflix documentary. While there have been many other documentaries and articles on them, the fact that Netflix is releasing this will take this story to a much greater audience in the West, underlining the brutal air campaign being orchestrated by Assad and the Russians. When Malala survived the vicious attack on her by the Taliban for speaking up for her right to go to school, she became an instant symbol of courage, determination and freedom. She ended up winning the Nobel Peace Prize, though, of course, there is no denying that she was used by the West as the face of liberalism in a part of the world fraught with Islamic conservatism.

The White Helmets are possibly going to face a similar fate. The fault lines of the Syrian civil war are as brutal as the war itself. It's a country divided between various ideas and loyalties, and often these loyalties are today purchasable in return for bread and safety. However, even if one was to consider all the various narratives around the White Helmets, they seldom come off as anything but an inspiring group of men who are completely worthy of a Nobel nod. Between men in suits impotently waving the various flags of power in Washington, Moscow and Damascus, and a global audience which prefers to live in an augmented reality, these White Helmets do a job that is thankless, foolhardy and painfully inspiring -- all to save the lives of strangers largely left to their own devices by the world. It is something you and me, if living in a war zone, would perhaps not even think of doing.

If there is a silver lining in such a dark cloud, it shouldn't be wished away as propaganda by any side whatsoever.

"I didn't want to be with the regime (Assad) army, or the Free Syrian Army (rebels). I chose to do humanitarian work. My weapons are my helmet, my shovel and my medical equipment," said a White Helmet in a recent documentary by Al Jazeera. The debate over who is on what side in such a conflict is never-ending, but if there is a silver lining in such a dark cloud, it shouldn't be wished away as propaganda by any side whatsoever.

Memento Mori by Pablo Bartholomew

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