You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Cave’

A standout among Syrian war docs, Feras Fayyad’s powerful portrait audaciously puts women’s imperative contribution to survival front and center.

Feras Fayyad
(Arabic, English dialogue)

Running time: 95 MIN.

Even with a steady supply of eye-opening documentaries coming out of Syria, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the human stories emerging from the country’s ongoing crisis. Two years after his multi-award-winning “Last Men In Aleppo” — co-directed by Steen Johannessen and following a trio from the selfless volunteer rescue collective “The White Helmets” — writer-director Feras Fayyad plunges inside another astonishing account of bravery with the female-driven “The Cave.” Beneath the surface of the besieged Eastern Ghouta, a region where some 400,000 people remain trapped, he takes us through the dimly lit hallways and limited means of a miraculously operational subterranean hospital, the Cave, managed by a patriarchy-defying female pediatrician.

Unsurprisingly, this is both an immensely humanist film, and a tough, heartbreaking watch — “The Cave” doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic images, many of them involving severely wounded children. In one scene, “Please be honest with me, am I dying?” asks a fearful kid, injured (thankfully uncritically) during a Russian attack. In another, a mother’s helpless cry next to her dead son tears through the air. But then we also get lighter segments; like a surprise birthday party a group of staff throws for one of their own and witty conversations that scoop unexpected humor out of topics small and big, from rice cooking to air strikes. It’s a dizzying, disquieting film that overflows with such extreme examples of desperation and a defiantly countering sense of hope. Throughout, it honors the brave underground caregivers (many of them, students) and personnel who stayed behind on the outskirts of Damascus to help others out while risking their own lives.

Through a vérité-style “how on earth did they manage to film this and live to tell the tale?” intrigue and a character-driven structure, “The Cave” places Dr. Amani Ballor at the core of its story, which Fayyad co-wrote with Alisar Hasan. With her other female counterparts — the reserved and focused Dr. Alaa and the sweetly maternal, humorous nurse Samaher — Dr. Amani, elected as a hospital manager by her colleagues at only 29 years of age, runs the Cave with unparalleled compassion and leadership. Fending off routine sexism from those who strongly believe a woman of her age should take up other interests or ideally get married and raise a family, Dr. Amani infectiously spreads her liberal feminist beliefs to everyone willing to listen.

Popular on Variety

In the end, it is the feminine camaraderie and understanding that stands tall as the backbone of the film and perhaps even the entire operation. Despite having their physical safety incessantly threatened — above the ground, there is nothing but a wasteland of a city nearly flattened by bombs — and capability repeatedly questioned by male patients, the trio of women somehow manages to carve out an alternative space for themselves. In that, they criticize religion as an enabler of falsely perceived male superiority and work side-by-side with male colleagues as equals, even if their parity comes as a consequence of the desperate aboveground circumstances. Thematically in conversation with Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ (tighter and harder-hitting) Aleppo documentary “For Sama” in the way it prioritizes wartime children and the female experience, “The Cave” lucidly assesses the physical and psychological cost of a regime that sinks as low as bombing hospitals to break people’s endurance.

Meanwhile, Fayyad introduces us to other notable characters of the ecosystem, like Dr. Salim Namour, the oldest physician at the facility. A calm and kindly professional, Dr. Salim always tends to his patients with the accompaniment of peaceful classical music he blasts out of his phone to boost the morale of both the injured civilians and the staff under his care. There is also Dr. Amani’s father — while we don’t see him, we get to witness the proud words of a doting, supportive dad via other means as he encourages his hardworking daughter. “People will forget the war at some point. But they will never forget you,” he says. “I am proud of you.”

Shot by a team of three Damascus-born cinematographers (Muhammed Khair Al Shami, Ammar Sulaiman and Mohammad Eyad) with remote direction from Fayyad when he himself couldn’t go to Al Ghouta due to the siege, “The Cave” smartly avoids talking-head interviews, favoring a you-are-there approach in unveiling the emotions of the staff and observing the inner workings of their hospital. While the lack of state-of-the-art equipment shows, it also infuses “The Cave” with an earned sense of realism: The rooms feel impersonal and dingy while the indoor light looks punishingly artificial. Though this truthfulness in visuals is supported by neither the metaphoric underwater image in the end, nor Matthew Herbert’s slightly heavy-handed score or other labored musical choices (including “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s “Requiem”). The subjects and visuals prove tragic enough without any help from these prescriptive cues.

Still, Fayyad pulls off something miraculous with “The Cave,” which concludes with a devastating final act in flames. He transmits a unique environment of audacity onto the screen, where collective dare and wit becomes synonymous with endurance. He also proves, one character at a time, that there would be no societal survival without the smarts and equal contribution of women.

Film Review: 'The Cave'

Reviewed online, New York, Aug. 28, 2019. (In Toronto Film Festival — TIFF Docs.) Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: (Documentary – Syria-Denmark-Germany-U.S.-Qatar) A National Geographic Documentary Films release and presentation of a Danish Documentary production.

Crew: Director: Feras Fayyad. Writers: Fayyad, Alisar Hasan. Camera (color, HD): Mohammad Kheir, Ammar Suleiman, Mohammad Eyad. Editors: Per K. Kirkegaard, Denniz Göl Bertelsen. Music: Matthew Herbert.

With: (Arabic, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Weathering With You

    Japan Box Office Leaps to $2.4 Billion Record in 2019

    The Japanese box office leaped by 17% in 2019 to set a record $2.4 billion score, according to figures announced Tuesday by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, locally known as Eirin. The previous high was the $2.2 billion recorded in 2016. The Makoto Shinkai animation “Weathering with You” was the highest earning film [...]

  • Lionsgate Developing 'Memetic' Apocalyptic Horror Movie

    Film News Roundup: Lionsgate Developing 'Memetic' Apocalyptic Horror Movie

    In today’s film news roundup, Lionsgate is developing graphic novel “Memetic” as a feature, the latest Laura Ziskin Prize is announced and Firelight Media creates a fund for nonfiction filmmakers of color at the mid-career mark. PROJECT LAUNCHES Lionsgate is in final negotiations for motion picture rights to the apocalyptic horror graphic novel “Memetic” for [...]

  • Sylvie's Love Review

    'Sylvie's Love': Film Review

    Sultry music swells as the camera swoons over a young couple in a tender nighttime embrace. The 1950s residential New York City street is carefully rain-slicked and lined with shiny classic cars: an obvious stage set. Gene Kelly might just have swung on that lamppost; Doris Day might lean out of an upstairs window to sigh [...]

  • Martin Scorsese Irishman BTS

    Martin Scorsese's Body of Work Extends Far Beyond Male-Centric Mafia Movies

    Actors sometimes complain about being typecast, but it’s a fact of life for anyone in entertainment. John Ford is usually labeled a director of Westerns, despite “The Grapes of Wrath” and  “Mister Roberts.” David Lean is known for his epics, but he also directed “Brief Encounter” and “Summertime.” Vincente Minnelli? The director of musicals, overlooking [...]

  • Oscars Oscar Academy Awards Placeholder

    Will Oscar Campaigning Turn to Mudslinging?

    On March 5, 1963, Army Archerd wrote in Variety: “There’s been a not-so-subtle campaign pyramiding since Oscar nominations that Omar Sharif is an ex-Egyptian soldier who fought in the Israeli War. Forget it: Omar sez: ‘I never fought in any army.’” Archerd also denied the rumor that Sharif was Muslim. Two big takeaways: 1. Mudslinging [...]

  • Blake Lively

    Why Blake Lively Isn't Trying to Be the 'Female James Bond' in 'The Rhythm Section'

    “The Rhythm Section,” Reed Morano’s new espionage thriller about a female assassin who sets out to avenge her family’s untimely death, is not a female-led approximation of a “James Bond” film. Though Barbara Broccoli, the magnate producer whose family has been solely responsible for the franchise, is producing the movie, “The Rhythm Section” is decidedly not [...]

  • Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez. Kristen Anderson-Lopez,

    Kristen Anderson-Lopez Talks Responsibility, Representation in 'Frozen 2' and the Biz

    Gender parity isn’t an issue in Oscar-winning songwriting-composer Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s house, what with her longstanding collaboration with husband Bobby Lopez, but at the Oscars luncheon on Monday, it was a different story. “There were 13 female directors represented in the shorts and documentary fields,” Anderson-Lopez notes, adding, “but how do we get from there to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content