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Netflix “White Helmets” Doc Is Moving, Misses Turkey's Role, Qs of Yemen, Lanka, Gaza

By Matthew Russell Lee, Review

UNITED NATIONS, August 30 -- The “White Helmets” documentary slated to air on Netflix on September 16 starts with dramatic footage of airstrikes and searching through buildings, saving a week-old baby from a collapsed wall - then settles into a training camp in Turkey.

  The director and producer, Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, collaborated in 2014's Virunga, about gorillas in the Congo. This time for Netflix they wade into the Syrian conflict, with amazing footage but, at least for some viewers, a lack of analysis.

   Turkey, for example, is portrayed as a helpful haven across the border. Now Turkey has entered Syria to fight not ISIS but the Kurds. Could these nuances not be included in a 40-minute documentary?

   In terms of the politics of Netflix, one wonders if a similar-length documentary for example about Gaza, or more to this point Sri Lanka, would be aired. There were airstrikes on civilians in Sri Lanka; Channel 4 aired Callum Macrae's “No Fire Zone.” But would a paean to a Tamil Tiger medical teams be screened on Netflix?

  In “White Helmets,” the protagonists give heartfelt testimony looking straight into the camera. One White Helmet has a two-week old son while a one week old baby is rescued. In the long Turkey segment, another cranes into his cell phone to see the most recent car bomb in Aleppo.

In a tip of the hat to balance, the phrase “ISIS on the ground, the Russians in the air” is used. The United Nations, tellingly, is not or barely mentioned. UNrelevant.

   Turkey is portrayed as a paradise, and in fairness the filming in early 2016 was before the attempted coup. Still, Turkey had and has an interest in Syria, now largely targeting the Kurds, and this is not mentioned. Instead there are long segments of fireman training - one wonders, will Dennis Leary endorse the film?

  In one sequence in Turkey, television news mentions MSF, Doctors Without Borders. As their facilities in Yemen have been destroyed by the Saudi-led Coalition supported by the US, is Netflix considering any coverage of Yemen?

   Still, “White Helmets” is moving and well-produced. It should be seen - but so should much else.


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