The White Helmets: Behind the scenes during Oscar week
Actor David Oyelowo, producer Joanna Natasegara, director Orlando von Einsiedel and actress Salma Hayek on Oscar night
Orlando Von Einsiedel, the British director of Oscar-winning short documentary The White Helmets, travelled to Los Angeles to collect his statue with support from the British Council/BFI travel fund. Here he recalls the highlights of Oscar week.
The road from developing our film The White Helmets to standing on the red carpet in Los Angeles was a long and tough one. To have our film recognised by the Academy was a true honour, but to be able to use the platform of the Oscars to shout loudly about the heroes in our film and the situation Syria civilians are living through each day was, for us, the most important element of being nominated for an Academy Award.
Tuesday (21 February)
Our week began by paying a visit to a massive billboard for The White Helmets on a busy Los Angeles street. Right from the start of this project, one of the key aims was to magnify the work of Syria’s White Helmet rescue workers, some of the bravest people we have ever met. Seeing the billboard made all of us feel proud and Joanna Natasegara (our producer) and I took a picture in front of it.
However, our day sadly took a turn for the worse as that evening we heard that our Syrian cinematographer, Khaled Khatib, was not going to be able to join us at the ceremony due to the complications affecting many Syrians trying to travel internationally. Right from the moment we found out about the nomination we had planned on having Khaled join us at the ceremony. As a White Helmet himself, this would have been a unique opportunity for him to be recognised and celebrated for his brave work. We also felt that with so many misunderstandings about people from Syria, and Muslims in general, his was a voice that was particularly important to hear. We feel it was a loss for America that he was not able to attend.
Wednesday (22 February)
On Wednesday, we were invited to the ‘Oscar Week Documentaries’ event hosted by the Academy at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. All the nominated short documentary filmmakers and the feature documentary filmmakers attended. A short clip was played from each film followed by a panel discussion in front of about 1,000 people. This year’s films were of particularly high quality and about powerful and globally relevant subject matter. As a film team we felt humbled to be included alongside the other brilliant filmmakers.
Thursday (23 February)
Joanna and I attended ‘Connected’, an impact-focused event hosted by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). On a panel discussion in a room full of influential people, we discussed the work of the White Helmets, the issues at the heart of our film and the process of making it. In the afternoon we had an intimate discussion with the team at documentary production company Brave New Films about the documentary filmmaking and the history of our work. Speaking with young and passionate filmmakers from around the world all aiming to make work that could have social impact was one of the highlights of the week.
Friday (24 February)
On Friday, Joanna began the day by going to the annual pre-Oscar ‘Women in Film Party’ and then we were both invited to the ‘Film is GREAT Britain Reception’, organised by the British Consulate in LA. British filmmakers were sadly under-represented at this year’s Academy Awards, hopefully next year will be more fruitful.
We couldn’t stay long as we had to cross town to join a toast for the three Netflix films nominated for this year’s Academy Awards; The White Helmets, Extremis by Dan Krauss and 13th by Ava DuVernay. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate with the team at Netflix. The White Helmets is the second film we have made with them (after Virunga) and we have loved every minute of working alongside their teams. They really champion documentaries and filmmakers.
Saturday (25 February)
Much of our wider team arrived on the Saturday and together we went to a screening of all of the short documentaries at the DocuDay event at the Writers Guild Theatre. After a few weeks of attending events alongside the other nominated documentary filmmakers, everyone had become good friends so this was a relaxing and fun event. We also would urge everyone to watch their excellent work; 4.1 Miles, Watani: My Homeland, Joe’s Violin and Extremis. After DocuDay, some of our team attended the ShortsHD awards party to pick up an award alongside all of the other nominated short films.
Sunday (26 February)
Sunday was the big day. Our whole team got together early and had breakfast while getting ready at the same time. Around lunchtime we jumped into cars and headed to the Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. The red carpet is a daunting experience as some of the world’s most well-known faces are mobbed by hundreds of reporters from outlets across the globe. For us, it was a unique opportunity to talk about the message of compassion and tolerance that the White Helmets embody. Joanna and I spent a few hours talking to everyone from the BBC to The New York Times.
Our previous film, Virunga was nominated for an Oscar in 2015 so we had been to the ceremony before. That year we were both very nervous but this time we had decided to just try and enjoy every minute of the show and being in the room. When our category was announced though that plan went out of the window and we definitely felt extremely nervous. Hearing The White Helmets being read out was a very strange experience and just didn’t seem real. Standing on the stage was almost like an out-of-body experience.
Joanna and I had prepared a few thank you messages and then we read a short statement from Raed Saleh, the leader of the White Helmets. His message was “Our organisation is guided by a verse from the Holy Quran: ‘to save one life is to save all of humanity.’ We have saved more than 82,000 civilian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life, to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world.” It was very moving to see Hollywood stand in acknowledgement of the suffering of Syrian civilians. With that we walked off stage and immediately called our cinematographer Khaled Khatib who was already celebrating in Turkey.
Writing this diary with a bit of reflection, we feel extremely proud to have been able to share the work of the White Helmets with a global audience. We are also very thankful that the organisation’s volunteers opened up their lives to us and allowed us to document them. However, we are all too aware that at this very moment The White Helmets in our film are quite possibly responding to yet another air strike, and saving yet another life. With the war carrying on as long as it has, it is all too easy for the White Helmets, and Syrians more widely, to believe that the world has forgotten them. We hope that this film winning the Oscar shows that in a very small way, it has not.
Orlando and Joanna's trip to the Oscars was supported by a travel grant. from the British Council/BFI.