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.
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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.