ISTANBUL, Turkey — A film about a group of volunteers called the Syrian Civil Defence — dubbed the "White Helmets" — won the award for best short documentary at the Oscars on Sunday. The White Helmets was not only the first Academy Award win for a Netflix production, which distributed the film, it was also the first major cultural award to recognise the situation in Syria.
The 40-minute documentary shows in gripping detail what the war in Syria looks like on the ground. It gives a window into the lives of the Syrian rescue workers who scramble to pull people from the rubble of homes and buildings destroyed by air strikes.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel, who accepted the award, asked the audience to stand and collectively call for an end to the bloody six-year civil war. Von Einsidel, to a standing ovation, read out a statement from White Helmets founder Raed Al Saleh:
We are so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organisation is guided by a verse from the Quran: To save one life is to save all of humanity. We have saved more than 82,000 Syrian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world.
The documentary's lead cinematographer, Khaled Khatib, was unable to attend after being barred from entering the US despite being granted a visa. US officials said opaquely that they had discovered "derogatory information" (sic) about Khatib.
Another of the cinematographers who worked on the film was 23-year-old Fadi Khateib from Aleppo. Forced to give up his studies when the conflict started, Khateib is a freelance photographer who covers the human suffering in Aleppo and has worked closely with the White Helmets.
TRT World’s Mohamed Taha sat down with the young Syrian photographer to discuss what the Oscar win means for the film crew and the situation in his country, as well as the challenges of working in a war zone.
Firstly, congratulations on winning the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject). How do you feel?
FADI KHATEIB: It’s unbelievable. It’s impossible to express how I feel. It’s a day of celebration for us. It goes to show with limited resources, without a producer around you all the time when you work, without all this — you can still shoot a film. This film has rewarded us. It’s impossible to express my feeling. Given the suffering in Syria, we managed to make the film. We are not journalists. But we improved our skills as photographers and storytellers and now we’ve become more professional at what we do.
Why didn’t you attend the Oscars?
FK: The Oscars [Committee] only sent two tickets [for the award ceremony]. One ticket was for Raed Saleh, who is the head of the White Helmets. The other ticket was for the videographer for the White Helmets. We chose Khaled Khatib to attend the Oscars because all of his documentation was ready. The United States gave us two visas — one for Raed and one for the other person we chose. We chose Khaled because his papers were ready.
For me, the Syrian regime didn’t give me a passport because I speak the truth and I am taking photos of people who are suffering for international media channels. When I do this, the regime views me as a person who doesn't deserve to live; in their view I should die in the fastest possible way. I was told that I should go and get my passport from the regime administration so that I can travel overseas. How can I get a passport from the regime if they want to kill me? If you asked me if my dream is to win an Oscar or have a passport, I would answer you that I want both.
What were you doing before the uprising in Syria [that began in 2011]?
FK: I was studying. But I’ve stopped my studies. At the beginning of the war, I stopped. I tried to go back to study but I couldn’t continue because of the situation in Syria. The city of Aleppo needs journalists but there are only a few people working in Aleppo to tell the stories. Aleppo has a lot of huge issues and injustices going on. There are no journalists there to cover these. So I decided to start covering what was happening.
Where is your family?
FK: They were with me in Aleppo. But they evacuated along with many other civilians who left eastern Aleppo [in December 2016]. Now they are out of Aleppo.
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As both a photographer and videographer, how difficult was it to capture images and film for the documentary, and also at the same time help rescue people?
FK: To be honest, it is the hardest job to do in the world. When you arrive at the scene of a bombing, where there are children in the rubble, do you take photos of them to show the world what is happening, or do you help get them out of the rubble? I normally reach the scene with the first group of rescue workers. When you see little children injured, I think "Do I help them, or take photos of them?" Do you take a photo to show the world what’s going on, or put your camera away and go help this child? Maybe you will be the reason why this child lives. That’s why it’s very difficult doing what I do. But the sense of humanity overwhelms everything. It’s impossible to see somebody beg for you to help and you are standing taking photos. If you don’t help, you will give up your humanity. So I help.
When most people run away from bombs, you woke up every morning to go towards the bombs. Why?
FK: I get asked this question often. How do I, as a human being who is 23 years old, in the prime of my life, run towards bombs? Why? Give us a reason? There is something inside you; a belief in the cause. A conviction to help people. If I run away and nobody takes photos, the regime will bomb and continue to bomb more areas filled with civilians. Because then no one is holding them to account. They will just rain down bombs. The regime will kill more people and say they are all "terrorists" who died in this bombing. They will deny they were civilians. It’s my responsibility to take photos in order to show the world what is really happening.
Are you afraid of losing your life?
FK: I have a lot of threats on my life. They [the Assad regime] say I am taking photos so I am a terrorist. I say why? Because I’m rescuing people from rubble and taking photos. Because I’m filming and shooting in the most dangerous city in the world, Aleppo. Bashar al Assad’s claims to give people hope and safety yet he is the terrorist. He isn’t helping the people, we are. He is bombing them.
What is your most memorable moment while filming for The White Helmets?
FK: The photos I took in Aleppo are ones which I will never forget. There are a lot of strong and compelling photos and video footage. There is one particular scene from the film which stands out for me. We were driving to the site after bombs had started falling, we go out and rush to help people. People are running for their lives. One time, a woman started running to escape from a bomb and she desperately grabbed the hand of one of the workers from the White Helmets. She grabbed him in way that her life depended on him. This shot explains what we do. It summed up the White Helmets in one image. It is evidence against those who claim we are bad people or a bad group. This woman felt a strong sense of safety with this worker from the White Helmets.
There has been criticism of the White Helmets. The Assad regime has accused the group of being a front for Al Qaeda and of faking footage for propaganda purposes. You have spent time with the group and filmed them. How do you respond to that?
FK: I am not an official member of the White Helmets group. But as a photographer, I have worked with them closely for three years. I know them — how they eat, how they live, how they work. Most of them are carpenters, mechanics, tradespeople. They are simple people. They are not terrorists. By the way, what we shot is only ten per cent of what is happening in Syria. The regime dresses people to act like the White Helmets group. The regime shares these pictures of them carrying machine guns to try to discredit the White Helmets.
It’s like when you tell someone that yoghurt is black. But it’s obvious it’s white. Everyone knows that. Similarly, everyone knows the White Helmets and what they do. The regime says there are no barrel bombs but everyone knows there are barrel bombs. The regime says there is no opposition. They regime says there are no civilians when they bomb a home or building. So who are these people who are dying? Are they saying there are no civilians in the rubble? Are the men, women, little children in the rubble who are dead or injured "terrorists"? Did they come from the moon?
What is your message to people around the world?
FK: I want to tell them what is happening in Syria is wrong and inhumane. There is bloodshed everywhere. Syria is a pool of blood and this pool of blood isn’t stopping. Every day there is death. All of our dreams, our hopes and our homes are gone. We ask only for justice and freedom. We want to have a democratic state. There is bloodshed and killing. All we’re asking for is democracy, justice and freedom.
We wanted to choose a new leader but Bashar al Assad refused and decided to fight against his people. He has become the most evil person in the world. These people [the Assad regime] are against humanity and are the most evil people in the world. They kill and slaughter innocent people. I want to tell rescue workers and ordinary people to stand with the Syrian cause. Recently the Syrian cause has lost attention. This film has put the Syrian situation back in the spotlight.
Do you believe Syria will be free one day?
FK: Syria should be free. I will be go back to Syria on Saturday to continue to show what is happening. When this problem ends and this war stops, I will leave Syria. But right now, Syria needs me.
This interview was conducted in Arabic and has been translated into English.