Two months ago, I encouraged several people to watch this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. My only instruction: have tissues handy. Hard-hitting themes ranged from Syria, to end-of-life decisions in an ICU, to Syria, to the Holocaust, to Syria.
So months before the White House fired its missiles in the direction of the Middle Eastern country this week, the Academy was providing us privileged folk sitting in soft recliners with varied perspectives on the crisis that’s happening halfway around the world—where instead of privilege there are regular shellings, and instead of soft recliners there are scared children. The nominated documentaries, “The White Helmets” (the eventual winner), “Watani: My Homeland,” and “4.1 Miles” each offer a completely different take on Syria’s civil war, and each gives us reason to care. This is essential viewing. Below I give a brief synopsis for each film, including the full version of “4.1 Miles.”
“The White Helmets” (dir. Orlando von Einsiedel)
This year’s winner for Best Documentary Short Subject takes us into the heart of Syria’s civil war. We meet an organized group of ordinary citizens known as The White Helmets. Guided by an unquenchable spirit, these intrepid men are dispatched around the country rescuing innocent civilians buried in the rubble of shelled buildings. In fact, they’ve rescued an estimated 60,000 people, and in honor of their efforts received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The film beams with hope shining through the terror, and this is particularly evident in a miraculous and dramatic rescue of a newborn, and the baby’s eventual reunion with his rescuers some time later. This film is available to view on Netflix. You’re going to cry.
“Watani: My Homeland” (dir. Marcel Mettelsiefen)
Where this film shines is in its very personal point of view. We’re embedded with a single family fleeing from Syria in search of peace and stability in a new land. As the family arrives in Germany, the children are in fear that their new classmates won’t accept them, and their mother is in fear that her kidnapped husband might have been killed by opposing forces back home. She struggles to keep it together for the sake of her young children, who are quickly learning to adapt to their new home. Despite their father’s unknown fate, they’re resilient.
The emotional core of this film is in the kids’ acceptance by their peers at school. One even commented that he didn’t expect to make friends on the first day. It’s a reminder that young children are kindness and love in the purest form. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, you matter.
“4.1 Miles” (dir. Daphne Matziaraki)
It wasn’t long ago that a deluge of footage showing refugees from Syria and other neighboring countries flooding into Greece was glowing on our TV screens. Dozens of scared, innocent people piled into a raft. The raft tips over. The rescue commences. And the debate ignites. Should we or shouldn’t we allow them to cross our borders?
This film, embedded here in full, provides an insider’s glance into these rescue missions from the perspective of a Greek boat captain who helped save so many people. We learn about the Greeks’ concerns. We witness the palpable fright of the refugees up close. We hope for a better future and an end to their plight.
With this week’s events fresh in our minds, it’s a good time to consider things from the perspective of the Syrians themselves. It’s their stories that hit home. It’s their stories that are our stories. And that’s why they matter.