The oft-overlooked Oscar category of best documentary short has a dramatic theme this year: Three of the five films nominated are about Syrians, and each offers an intimate, eye-witness account of the devastation in that country.
One of the shorts, The White Helmets, follows a group of civilian volunteers in Aleppo who search for and rescue bombing victims. They're the only first responders left and they've saved tens of thousands of people, digging them out from the rubble. (The sound of bombs blasting can be heard throughout the film.)
"They began with nothing," says filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, who's based in the U.K. "They began, you know, clawing at the rubble with their bare hands. ... They are the closest things Syrians have to superheroes."
The film's stunning footage was shot by then-teenage Syrian photographer Khaled Khatib, who volunteers with the White Helmets. His camera follows them running into smoky crossfire just after the bombings.
In one key scene, rescuers stop to carefully listen for the faint cries of a newborn baby. He's been trapped under a three-story building for more than 16 hours. "They pull him out and he's completely unharmed," von Einsiedel says. "Apart from being dehydrated, he hasn't got a single scratch on him. It's the most extraordinary footage." The men cheer and call him a miracle baby.
Von Einsiedel says his documentary is ultimately a hopeful story in the midst of tragedy. "One of the great things about documentary is its ability to create empathy. And, you know, there's so much misunderstanding particularly at this moment about Muslims and people from places like Syria. We hope our film helps create bridges."
Since the film was shot, the White Helmets have stayed in Syria, where they continue to save lives; but hundreds of thousands of other Syrians have had to flee the country. The nominated short 4.1 Miles documents part of the treacherous journey some of them make.
Named for the distance between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos, the film captures a day in the life of a Greek coast guard captain. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and his crew rescue groups of Syrian refugees clinging to flimsy dinghies in the Aegean Sea.
Daphne Matziaraki made the film for her journalism master's project at the University of California, Berkeley. She traveled to her native Greece to film Papadopoulos and his crew pulling women and children onto their 15-foot boat with ropes and their own hands. The captain is seen trying to revive unconscious children and get them to safety.
"This man is a true hero," Matziaraki says. "He, as a human being, feels this enormous responsibility to just respond and to save every life that he can. ... It is his nightmare that he might have left somebody behind. Or when he loses somebody ... and he cannot revive the child or he cannot get fast enough to his dock, that haunts him."
The third of these films, Watani: My Homeland, documents the lives of Hala Kamil and her four children, who, at the beginning of the film, live in an abandoned building in eastern Aleppo. Filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen shows Kamil's husband, Free Syrian Army commander Abu Ali, shooting from atop a bombed-out building, followed by scenes of their young daughters crying or playing with toy guns, pretending to be what they call "ISIS girls."
"They were playful, incorporating their environment into their games," Mettelsiefen says. "I think it's the secret of how children are able to adapt to anything."
Mattelsiefen was working as a photojournalist when he first met Abu Ali. He was shocked when the Muslim man invited him to film his wife and children. "That's unbelievabl[y] rare that a man allows me to speak to his wife and that she's even able to be filmed and that I'm able to spend days with them."
In fact, Mattelsiefen spent three years with the family. In that time, Abu Ali was kidnapped by ISIS and Kamil and the children fled, eventually making their way to a small German city that welcomes refugees. Mattelsiefen follows them on their journey. "We have seen enough fighting, shooting, dying," he says, "and I wanted to tell the story of how do these people survive."
Mattelsiefen plans to escort Hala Kamil to the Oscars ceremony on Sunday. Daphne Matziaraki, the director of 4.1 Miles, is bringing Kyriakos Papadopoulos, and White Helmets filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel is bringing his cinematographer, Khaled Khatib, as well as Raed Saleh, the leader of the White Helmets.