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These Oscar-Nominated Documentaries Tell Intimate Stories Of Syria's Civil War

Feb 23, 2017
Originally published on February 28, 2017 12:13 pm

The oft-overlooked Oscar category of best documentary short has a dramatic theme this year: Three of the five films nominated are about Syrians, and each offers an intimate, eye-witness account of the devastation in that country.

One of the shorts, The White Helmets, follows a group of civilian volunteers in Aleppo who search for and rescue bombing victims. They're the only first responders left and they've saved tens of thousands of people, digging them out from the rubble. (The sound of bombs blasting can be heard throughout the film.)

"They began with nothing," says filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, who's based in the U.K. "They began, you know, clawing at the rubble with their bare hands. ... They are the closest things Syrians have to superheroes."

The film's stunning footage was shot by then-teenage Syrian photographer Khaled Khatib, who volunteers with the White Helmets. His camera follows them running into smoky crossfire just after the bombings.

In one key scene, rescuers stop to carefully listen for the faint cries of a newborn baby. He's been trapped under a three-story building for more than 16 hours. "They pull him out and he's completely unharmed," von Einsiedel says. "Apart from being dehydrated, he hasn't got a single scratch on him. It's the most extraordinary footage." The men cheer and call him a miracle baby.

Von Einsiedel says his documentary is ultimately a hopeful story in the midst of tragedy. "One of the great things about documentary is its ability to create empathy. And, you know, there's so much misunderstanding particularly at this moment about Muslims and people from places like Syria. We hope our film helps create bridges."

Since the film was shot, the White Helmets have stayed in Syria, where they continue to save lives; but hundreds of thousands of other Syrians have had to flee the country. The nominated short 4.1 Miles documents part of the treacherous journey some of them make.

Named for the distance between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos, the film captures a day in the life of a Greek coast guard captain. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and his crew rescue groups of Syrian refugees clinging to flimsy dinghies in the Aegean Sea.

Daphne Matziaraki made the film for her journalism master's project at the University of California, Berkeley. She traveled to her native Greece to film Papadopoulos and his crew pulling women and children onto their 15-foot boat with ropes and their own hands. The captain is seen trying to revive unconscious children and get them to safety.

"This man is a true hero," Matziaraki says. "He, as a human being, feels this enormous responsibility to just respond and to save every life that he can. ... It is his nightmare that he might have left somebody behind. Or when he loses somebody ... and he cannot revive the child or he cannot get fast enough to his dock, that haunts him."

The third of these films, Watani: My Homeland, documents the lives of Hala Kamil and her four children, who, at the beginning of the film, live in an abandoned building in eastern Aleppo. Filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen shows Kamil's husband, Free Syrian Army commander Abu Ali, shooting from atop a bombed-out building, followed by scenes of their young daughters crying or playing with toy guns, pretending to be what they call "ISIS girls."

"They were playful, incorporating their environment into their games," Mettelsiefen says. "I think it's the secret of how children are able to adapt to anything."

Mattelsiefen was working as a photojournalist when he first met Abu Ali. He was shocked when the Muslim man invited him to film his wife and children. "That's unbelievabl[y] rare that a man allows me to speak to his wife and that she's even able to be filmed and that I'm able to spend days with them."

In fact, Mattelsiefen spent three years with the family. In that time, Abu Ali was kidnapped by ISIS and Kamil and the children fled, eventually making their way to a small German city that welcomes refugees. Mattelsiefen follows them on their journey. "We have seen enough fighting, shooting, dying," he says, "and I wanted to tell the story of how do these people survive."

Mattelsiefen plans to escort Hala Kamil to the Oscars ceremony on Sunday. Daphne Matziaraki, the director of 4.1 Miles, is bringing Kyriakos Papadopoulos, and White Helmets filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel is bringing his cinematographer, Khaled Khatib, as well as Raed Saleh, the leader of the White Helmets.

Update on Tuesday, Feb. 28: Raed Saleh and White Helmets cinematographer Khaled Khatib did not attend the Oscars ceremony on Sunday. After accepting the award for best documentary short, White Helmets filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel told NPR, "Raed Saleh ... couldn't come in the end because the last couple of days in Syria the violence has really escalated and he does life-saving work and he decided in the end his time was better placed to do that. And Khaled Khatib, our cinematographer, we're confused about this, too. The last two weeks have been very difficult. He had a U.S. visa, he tried to board a plane and he wasn't able to come. We're very sad about that."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Three of the 5 documentary shorts nominated at the Oscars this year have something in common. They're about Syrians - from ordinary people who became first responders to a boat captain rescuing refugees, to a family that escapes and resettles in Germany. NPR arts correspondent Mandalit del Barco spoke with the filmmakers.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Each of these three documentaries offers an intimate eyewitness account of the devastation in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

DEL BARCO: Bombs blasting in Aleppo are constant in "The White Helmets," a film about a group of civilian volunteers who search and rescue victims. These first responders have saved tens of thousands of people, digging them out from bombed-out buildings.

ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: They are the closest thing Syrians have to superheroes.

DEL BARCO: Filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel introduces us to three of the men who wear white construction helmets - a former tailor, a blacksmith and a builder.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WHITE HELMETS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

DEL BARCO: Stunning footage was shot by a then-teenage Syrian photographer named Khaled Khatib, who volunteers with the White Helmets. His camera follows them running into smoky crossfire just after the bombings. In one key scene, rescuers stop to carefully listen to the faint cries of a newborn baby. He's been trapped under a three-story building for more than 16 hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WHITE HELMETS")

UNIDENTIFIED INFANT: (Crying).

(CROSSTALK)

VON EINSIEDEL: They pull him out, and he's completely unharmed. Apart from being dehydrated, he hasn't got a scratch on him. It's the most extraordinary footage.

DEL BARCO: The men cheer. They call him a miracle baby. Von Einsiedel says his documentary is ultimately a hopeful story in the midst of tragedy.

VON EINSIEDEL: One of the great things about documentary is its ability to create empathy. And you know, there's so much misunderstanding particularly at this moment about Muslims and people from places like Syria. You know, we hope our film helps create bridges.

DEL BARCO: Since the film was shot, the White Helmets have had to flee to other parts of Syria where they continue to save lives, but hundreds of thousands of others have had to escape. Part of their treacherous journey is documented in another short film, "4.1 Miles." That's the distance between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "4.1 MILES")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling).

DEL BARCO: The film captures a day in the life of a Greek Coast Guard captain. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and his crew rescue groups of Syrian refugees clinging to flimsy dinghies in the Aegean Sea.

DAPHNE MATZIARAKI: This man is it true hero. He feels this enormous responsibility to save every life that he can.

DEL BARCO: Daphne Matziaraki made the film in her native Greece as her journalism master's project at UC Berkeley. Onboard the 15-foot boat, she and her sound technician capture Papadopoulos and his crew pulling women and children onboard with ropes and their own hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "4.1 MILES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

(CROSSTALK)

DEL BARCO: The captain is seen trying to revive unconscious children and get them to safety.

MATZIARAKI: It is his nightmare that he might have left somebody behind or when he loses somebody and he cannot revive the child or he cannot get fast enough to the dog. That haunts him.

DEL BARCO: The third of these films is called "Watani: My Homeland." It documents the life of Hala Kamil and her four children surviving in an abandoned building in eastern Aleppo.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WATANI: MY HOMELAND")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Arabic).

DEL BARCO: Filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen shows Hala's husband, Abu Ali, a leader of the resistance, shooting from atop a bombed-out building.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

DEL BARCO: The film also captures scenes of their young daughters crying at times but also playing inside with toy guns, pretending to be what they call ISIS girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WATANI: MY HOMELAND")

HALA KAMIL: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Speaking Arabic).

MARCEL METTELSIEFEN: They were playful, incorporating their environment into their games. I think it's a secret of how children are able to adapt to anything.

DEL BARCO: As a photojournalist, Mettelsiefen had met the father, a Muslim man who invited him to film his wife and children.

METTELSIEFEN: This fact alone was something where I said, oh, wow. That's unbelievable, rare that a man allows me to speak to his wife and that she's even able to be filmed and that I'm able to spend days with them.

DEL BARCO: Mettelsiefen ended up spending three years with the family, during which time Ali is kidnapped by ISIS and the family flees. They eventually make their way to a small German city that welcomes refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WATANI: MY HOMELAND")

METTELSIEFEN: We've seen enough bang bang. We've seen enough fighting, shooting, dying. And I wanted to tell the story of how do these people survive.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: He plans to escort Hala Kamil to the Oscars ceremony on Sunday. "4.1 Miles'" director Daphne Matziaraki is bringing Captain Papadopoulos, and the leader of the White Helmets and the young cinematographer who still documents the group will be here from Syria for their big night in Hollywood. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEOLA AND KAPONO BEAMER SONG, "'IMI AU LA 'OE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.