“To save a life is to save all of humanity.” That’s the simple principle by which The White Helmets live their lives. There’s a lot to say for simplicity. Sometimes, the most concise way of saying something is the most powerful. It’s fitting, then, that Netflix’s latest original film isn’t an epic feature, but a short that’s barely 45 minutes.
The streaming giant has become something of a force when it comes to documentaries, with acquisitions such as The Square bagging the site its first Oscar nomination. More importantly, the service has grown into a vital platform for non-fiction, giving viewers easy access to important, eye-opening work – and filmmakers a chance to reach a wider audience.
Now, Netflix is turning its attention to short documentaries – a form that’s all-too-easily overlooked in the modern era of blockbusters and TV binge-watching. The White Helmets certainly comes with big-screen credentials: the film sees Netflix reunite with Virunga directors Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, who follow three workers in Aleppo. The workers are volunteers, part of the titular organisation, who spend their days and nights trying to rescue people from the ruins and rubble of explosions.
von Einsiedel and Natasegara have a knack for capturing the raw humanity of global issues, something that gave wildlife Virunga a gripping, urgent weight. This bloody, devastating snapshot of Syria packs no less of a punch. In five years of war, 400,000 Syrians have died, with The White Helmets striving to stop that number rising.
The film arrives in the same week as Netflix releases its second short documentary: Extremis, a heart-stopping inside look at a Californian ICU, where doctors deal everyday with critically, often fatally, ill patients.
While the Helmets fight to save people, the hospital staff fight for something else: we learn, through the first-hand experience of Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, that unwanted care for those who are dying can sometimes only prolong their suffering.
We watch as nurses try to determine whether Donna, a patient with a ventilation tube, needs the apparatus to breathe – and, more important, whether she actually wants it. They use blinks, nods and a picture of the alphabet all to get a simple yes or no answer to tragically complex questions. “Do you want the tube removed?” they ask, then: “What if you die?”
Both films place us on the battlefronts of life and death, where issues of faith, morals, humanity and science collide – and both provide small windows onto these expansive, tough dilemmas. Neither situation is clear-cut, but each of the directors understands that a feature-length examination wouldn’t bring us any clearer answers; the freedom of a short, meanwhile, lets them choose a length that fits their subject.
The White Helmets are caught up in a complicated political situation. Which side are they on? How are they portrayed and perceived in different countries? Rather than engage in any thorny, controversial debates, the short focuses on the immediate impact these astounding people have upon those around them – and the price that comes with it. Since 2013, more than 130 White Helmets have died. But how many lives have they saved?
The White Helmet’s lengthy runtime gives us the time to meet these volunteers’ loved ones and fully appreciate the cost of their endeavours. Extremis, on the other hand, is short enough to avoid any risk of exploiting the footage of those in hospital, making its portrait as sensitive as it is shocking.
“Everyone is going to die someday,” explains our lead doctor, matter-of-factly. “It’s good to have a little bit of a say in how.”
Sometimes, it only takes a few short words to distill a complex issue into something colossal. Together, Netflix’s brief double-bill is an important glimpse of heroes at work in the extremes of our everyday world, as well as a showcase for the potential short documentaries have to provoke and challenge audiences. To save a life is to save all of humanity. To save a short film from obscurity, meanwhile, could help give more life to a whole strain of underappreciated cinema.
Extremis is available to watch online on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.
The White Helmets is available to watch online on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.