After weeks of uncertainty, the real-life Syrian stars of Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar-nominated documentary short, “The White Helmets,” are set to attend this month’s Academy Awards. Following the recent executive order that limited access to the U.S.A. by citizens of seven Middle Eastern and North African countries (including Syria), the subjects of the short, which centers on the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated rescue group The White Helmets, were concerned that they would be unable to enter the country in time for the February 26 ceremony.
Distributor Netflix has announced this morning that White Helmets leader Raed Saleh, along with cinematographer Khaled Khatib (who is also an active White Helmet and Syrian national), are now expected to attend the ceremony. “The White Helmets” follows the group of volunteer first responders as they risk their lives to rescue civilian victims of the airstrikes that frequently hit the embattled country.
The past few weeks have been a strange whirlwind for the “White Helmets” team, marked by the news of their Oscar nomination and the signing of the executive order taking place in the space of mere days: the nominations hit on a January 24, and on January 27, President Trump signed the order for the so-called Muslim ban.
In a phone call with IndieWire, producer Joanna Natasegara said that she and Einsiedel had been working for weeks on figuring out whether their subjects could join them at the ceremony as the executive order took effect and then was lifted. This morning, they received confirmation that Saleh and Khatib had received their visas and were ready to travel. “All being well, we should be ready to welcome them next week,” she said. “We’re really pleased.”
As the news kept developing, Natasegara said, they remained uncertain how the situation might play out. “It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, in terms of us thinking they would be able to come in and not come in,” she said. “We want the White Helmets to have the recognition and the honor of the platform of the Oscars, one of the biggest platforms in the world. Rollercoaster is the real feeling that we have.”
The outcome speaks to the original intentions of the film. “We always made the film with the intention that it would raise the profile of what was happening to ordinary Syrian civilians, and that there were Syrian civilians doing rescue work,” she said. “That heightened profile is exactly what we’re looking for and what the White Helmets would like to gain.”
Saleh is similarly excited about the possibilities the trip will provide. “We are eagerly looking forward to coming to the Oscars,” he said, in a statement released by Netflix. “It will give us an important platform for the voices of Syrian children and women trapped under the rubble as a result of the airstrikes and artillery shelling, and for the voices of thousands of displaced Syrians who have been forced from their homes.”
Although Natasegara is overjoyed by the news, she remains cautious about the possibility that circumstances might change in the coming days.
“I think we’re really pleased this morning,” she said. “But there’s a certain nervous anticipation that we won’t fully separate [from] until they’re on U.S. soil.”
Khatib’s own official statement reflected that same sentiment. “If I cannot enter the U.S., I will not give up,” he said. “We know that we have many friends in the U.S., that there are people that share our humanitarian values. I look forward to meeting them all one day. When this war is over, I dream of going back to study film — we Syrians have many, many more stories to tell.”
Still, Natasegara and the “White Helmets” team remain heartened by the support shown for the film from the awards voting body.
“The idea that the world’s biggest award ceremony and the Academy would welcome them on that platform gives them a boast of morale,” the producer explained. “They’re working in a very difficult environment, and Syrians feel all too often forgotten. I think this goes some way to show them that actually the world has not forgotten about them.”
“The White Helmets” is currently available on Netflix.