Syrian refugee films get front-row seats at Sunday's Oscars

Syrian refugee films get front-row seats at Sunday's Oscars
4 min read
24 February, 2017
Three films focusing on the plight of Syrian refugees have been nominated for Sunday's Oscars best Documentary (Short Subject) category.
The films will be recognised for their cinematic achievements at the Oscars on Sunday [Getty]
The plight of Syrian refugees has landed three films at the 89th annual Oscars ceremony this year.

Each film offers an intimate, eye-witness account of the devastation in the country, where the brutal war unleashed by the regime in the face of a popular rebellion six years ago created the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

All three productions were nominated under the category of "Documentary (Short Subject)", where a total of five films will compete for the golden statue at the Hollywood event.

The films will be recognised for their cinematic achievements at the Oscars ceremony in US on Sunday.

"Watani: My Homeland"

The production, by Marcel Mettelsienfen and Stephen Elli, was filmed over three years. It follows a Syrian family's escape from Syria to Germany, where they attempt to start a new life.

Hammoudi, Helen, Farah and Sara are the children of rebel Free Syrian Army commander Abu Ali. They lived on the frontline of the civil war in the northern city of Aleppo - once a busy residential neighbourhood.

Under brutal regime bombardment of Aleppo, Abu Ali - who was an electric engineer before the war began - is captured by Islamic State militants during the filming. His family is then forced to escape, seeking refuge in a small, medieval German town.

The production was filmed in both Syria and Germany - bringing an extraordinary witness account to the suffering of a nation forced to flee their homeland. Mettelsienfen followed the family on their journey.

"We have seen enough fighting, shooting, dying," he said, "and I wanted to tell the story of how do these people survive."

Mettelsiefen first met Abu Ali when he was working as a photojournalist in Syria. He says he was shocked when the man invited him to film his family.

"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."

Mettelsiefen was amazed by the children's resilience.

"They were playful, incorporating their environment into their games," he said. "I think it's the secret of how children are able to adapt to anything."

The White Helmets

For anybody wondering why people are leaving Syria, this is the film to watch.

Amid daily air raids on civilians in rebel-held territories in Syria, a group of indomitable volunteers - known as the White Helmets - risk their lives to carry out search and rescue operations.

The White Helmets, have been recognised for saving around 60,000 people facing bombardments by the Syrian regime and Russian war planes since 2013.

"They began with nothing," filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel said, "They began, you know, clawing at the rubble with their bare hands. ... They are the closest things Syrians have to superheroes."

The film's footage was shot by Syrian photographer Khaled Khatib, who volunteers with the White Helmets. His camera follows them running into smoky crossfire minutes after an air raid.

In one of the scenes, the rescuers carefully listen out for the faint cries of a newborn child, buried under the rubble of a three-story building.

"They pull him out and he's completely unharmed," von Einsiedel said. "Apart from being dehydrated, he hasn't got a single scratch on him. It's the most extraordinary footage."

The baby is later dubbed as the "miracle baby".

"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," Von Einsiedel said.

Since filming, the White Helmets have remained in Syria, where they continue to carry out search and rescue operations.

4.1 Miles

It is just 4.1 miles between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. Between 2015 and 2016 some 600,000 refugees made the treacherous crossing trying to reach Europe.

The film captures a day in the life of a Greek coast guard captain, Kyriakos Papadopoulos.

Papadopoulos and his crew, rescue a group of Syrian refugees clinging firmly on flimsy dinghies in the Aegean sea.

Daphne Matziaraki made the film as part of her journalism master's university project. She filmed Papadopoulos and his crew as they used ropes and their hands to pull out women and children onto their boat.

"This man is a true hero," Matziaraki said.

"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," she said, "Or when he loses somebody ... and he cannot revive the child or he cannot get fast enough to his dock, that haunts him."