Orlando von Einsiedel is the director of the 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary feature Virunga, which won numerous awards worldwide, including a Primetime Emmy and a Peabody. Orlando’s short films have spanned Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Arctic and covered all manner of stories from a skateboard school in Afghanistan through to the tracking and arrest of pirates in West Africa. His latest film, The White Helmets, about volunteer Syrian rescue workers, launched last year as a Netflix Original production and is nominated for Best Documentary Short at the upcoming Academy Awards. He co-runs the London-based production company Grain Media.
There can be no denying that the year just gone has left us reeling. Values that many of us have taken for granted have been ripped from under our feet and the world feels more unpredictable and scary than ever. There are horrendous and intractable wars on almost every continent, from Syria and Yemen to South Sudan and Ukraine. The planet is heading toward a climate-change abyss and we seem powerless to get our leaders to forge a path away from it. And the renewed growth of populist movements across the world is leading to worrying and unprecedented political shifts.
It’s enough to make you despair in humanity and make you want to crawl under a blanket for a very long time.
However, I believe solace can be found in movies. I’m not talking here about films that make you laugh, make you feel good about yourself or make you forget about the world’s problems for 90 minutes. I’m talking about films that give you faith in human beings at a fundamental level.
Much of my work has been focused on telling the stories of what I can only describe as real-life heroes; brave individuals who have made the decision to put themselves in harm’s way in order to stand up for, or save, others; people willing to sacrifice their own lives, or well-being, for causes they see as bigger than themselves; those who have had to overcome enormous adversity to accomplish remarkable achievements.
These heroes range from pink sari-wearing women warriors in India standing up to domestic violence through to orphan gorilla carers in Congo’s Virunga National Park and Sierra Leonean environmental activists fighting the plundering of the country’s resources in the face of intimidation.
I am fascinated by what it is that drives people to do such things when the vast majority of us would turn and run, myself included. While the circumstances that such people often find themselves in can be overtly distressing, it is impossible not to be inspired by them as human beings. It’s people like these that give me hope there is still good in humanity.
Being fortunate enough to spend significant portions of time with such men and women has also given me a deeper optimism than I might otherwise have had. How could it not? In living with volunteer Syrian rescue workers, who each day risk their lives to pull complete strangers out from the rubble of collapsed buildings, you cannot but feel the strength and power of the human spirit.
I personally find consolation in thinking about the people we have made documentaries about, their bravery, force of character and everyday acts of resistance, and I hope that films such as Virunga and The White Helmets go some way toward sharing with others how exceptional they are. However, there are far better directors than I who have turned their cameras on equally extraordinary people and in watching those films I believe we can feel better about our world and its future.
Let’s start with documentaries. The list of docs, and the characters within them, that restore my faith in our species is long; here are a few I turn to when I need to believe again.
For extraordinary bravery, Burma VJ – a film about a group of video journalists documenting human rights abuses taking place within Myanmar and then smuggling the footage out for the world to see – is a shining example. The heroism of the journalist known as “Joshua” and his other unnamed colleagues, and their passion to push forward change within the country, is potent. The risks they take for the greater good are extraordinary, akin to World War II resistance fighters.
Equally jaw-dropping for his courage is Palestinian Emad Burnat, the director, and central protagonist, of 5 Broken Cameras. In watching his determination to risk his life in order to continue peacefully documenting an expanding Israeli settlement – despite the huge odds weighted against him – it is hard not to be stirred by his humanity.
A different form of bravery comes from the streets of Chicago and Steve James’ The Interrupters. After spending nearly three hours with lead character Ameena Matthews, you almost want to book a flight to the Windy City to help with her extraordinary work of conflict mediation. In her perilous crusade to stop gang members from making the same mistakes she made when she was younger, her courage resonates and proves that a tragic past need not define one’s future.
From character resilience to determination, the dusty boulevards of Kinshasa provide the backdrop for Benda Bilili!, a film that follows the lives of a group of homeless and disabled musicians over five years. These dispossessed Congolese citizens, led by wheelchair-bound Ricky Likabu, lead exceptionally difficult lives, however watching them progress from practicing music in the streets through to performing in Europe for enraptured crowds of thousands on the strength of their album, Très Très Fort, is heart-warming. That the film’s central characters manage to achieve so much, despite the huge disadvantages that life has dealt them, is life-affirming and acts as an example of the potential within everyone to achieve incredible feats. Human perseverance at its best.
It’s not just documentaries that capture humanity’s best traits. In fact, I think some of the most profoundly inspiring films about human integrity can be found in the scripted sphere, especially in movies based on true stories. Who can fail to root for Erin Brockovich’s interminable battle to bring justice to families getting sick from dangerous chemicals in the groundwater they are drinking?
I similarly find it hard not to feel compelled by the actions of Walter “Robby” Robinson in Spotlight or Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. While elements of these films are utterly horrifying, the heroes of both manage the impossible tasks of maintaining honor and a firm belief in what is right despite their worlds turning upside and threats to them from powerful forces.
Of course, it’s not just movies based on true stories that have a monopoly on human righteousness. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of strong films that capture examples of everyday resistance by people determined to break the status quo in one way or another. When the risks associated with a film’s characters’ refusal to accept a situation are particularly high, the courageousness of the act is striking.
Seeing the fight against gender inequality that is demonstrated with such dignity by the eponymous heroine in Wadjda really affected me. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, where cycling for girls is heavily frowned upon and discouraged, Wadjda does everything she can to buy a bike just like the boys in her neighborhood. She reminded me of a young girl called Fazila who I met in Afghanistan who was determined to skateboard, despite the wishes of her father and wider society’s views on acceptable behavior for women. Her bravery and determination have always stayed with me.
Lastly, being reminded of the human capacity for redemption is something we could all do with at this moment. Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club and Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List both shine as examples of human ability to move away from ways of thinking that are apparently set in stone. These characters both manage to turn their lives and belief systems around for the better, and help improve the existence of others at the same time. If a racist, homophobic alcoholic from Texas and a greedy, opportunistic Nazi party member living in Poland can both correct course and subsequently save countless people from certain death, what does that say for the potential in all of us?
While the above films do not necessarily offer ways to fix the problems the world is facing, I believe that they all give glimpses into some of humanity’s best qualities and offer comfort that there are good people in the world, and that there is hope for the future. Additionally, while these films are not new, from the looks of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, 2017 will be a bumper crop for movies with powerful and inspiring stories and characters.
So when one of our elected leaders next renounces climate change, discriminates against an entire religion, or imprisons a raft of journalists, I know where I’ll be … watching a film about homeless musicians in Kinshasa. Sometimes we all need a reminder that humans have faced enormous challenges in the past and have an amazing ability to resist, overcome, and renew. I can’t help feeling that we’ll need these reminders more than ever over the coming year.