How the Oscars put Syria in the spotlight
BEIRUT — Sitting 7,000 miles from the fuss and frills of Sunday’s Academy Awards, it was Raed Saleh, dressed in a simple T-shirt, who delivered one of the most powerful messages of the night.
In a short acceptance speech — posted online after a documentary about his Syrian White Helmets rescue force won an Oscar — the former electrical equipment salesman appealed to governments around the world “to stop the bloodshed of the Syrian people.”
“I ask everyone who is listening and seeing me now across the world to take a stand. Stop the killing of civilians,” he said, speaking from southern Turkey.
The 2016 “The White Helmets” was one of two films about Syria nominated in this year’s category for Best Documentary Short. The other, “Watani: My Homeland,” focuses on the voyage of one family from war into exile.
Taken together, the films offer glimpses of Syria’s broader tragedy, sending a strong message as to why the country’s exodus continues, and why for many, the decision to leave their homeland is among the hardest they will ever make.
The White Helmet volunteers have operated for years in rebel-held zones in Syria, helping pull survivors from the rubble of buildings hit by airstrikes and bombardments. The group has won several humanitarian awards and was thought to be in the running for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which went to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his role in helping negotiate a peace deal to end a civil war of more than 50 years.
The Oscar-winning documentary follows a White Helmets team from the northern city of Aleppo as it struggles against the exhausting pace of barrel bombs and airstrikes.
“We are not happy to do what we do. We abhor the reality we live in,” Saleh said in a separate statement late Sunday.
It is traumatizing work.
Almost six years into Syria’s brutal war, more than 150 White Helmets have been killed in the line of duty. Some were bombed at the site of an earlier blast. Last fall, the Aleppo headquarters seen in “The White Helmets” film was hit twice in the same day.
But as the film shows, leaving the war zone isn’t easy, either.
In a sequence filmed in southern Turkey, where the Aleppo team has been sent for a training course, the men are glued to their phones, powerless to help as they watch news of fresh airstrikes on the tiny screens.
The pain of that gulf is also a key theme of “Watani,” the other Oscar-nominated offering filmed in Syria.
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen, the 40-minute documentary follows the journey of Hala Kamil, a woman from Aleppo whose husband fought as a rebel in the uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
When he is kidnapped by Islamic State militants, she is forced to decide whether to wait for him as the fighting closes in or to take their children to safety.
“Hala might be physically in Germany now, but she’s emotionally trapped in her past,” said Mettelsiefen, who shot the footage on successive trips to Aleppo before the rise of the Islamic State made journeys through northern Syria impossible.
“Going through the hours of interviews, Hala’s own feelings became clear. She knew she would have to leave Syria, and in the process to feel like she had died inside, in order for her children to live,” he said. “This wasn’t a choice that any of them had asked for.”
That message is echoed by the millions of Syrian refugees across neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Sitting in an informal tent settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley earlier this month, a 43-year-old former nurse from the Syrian capital, Damascus, put it this way: “If you passed us in the street, you would assume we’d been refugees our whole life. But no one leaves their homes unless they have to. I had a family back in Syria, I had a life. Now I’m just an old refugee. No one thinks I have dignity or a history.”
As the Academy Award proceedings began in Hollywood, the White Helmets posted news to their Twitter account that toxic substances had been dropped on civilian homes in the countryside around Damascus, leaving people in the area struggling to breathe.
Another message showed the rescue workers digging a child out from the twisted rubble of his home in the northwestern province of Idlib.
“When ‘The White Helmets’ was announced a winner of the Academy Award, our team in Ariha, Idleb was rescuing a child,” read the accompanying message. “That’s the real win.”