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‘The Cave’ Editor on Cutting Syrian Civil War Footage: ‘It Was Like Hell Going Into Work Every Day’

The Cave Feras Fayyad
@Ammar Sulaiman

Editor Per K. Kirkegaard is proud of “The Cave’s” road to the Oscars. The documentary from filmmaker Feras Fayyad immerses viewers into the Syrian Civil War, showing the brutality and tragedy of the conflict.

Fayyad and his team shot in the heart of Syria, amid bombings, over a five-year period.

“We are so glad we can give the people of Syria a voice,” Kirkegaard says. “Getting to the Oscars means we can get the message out to society about what is going on.”

“The Cave” takes viewers into war-torn Al Ghouta and into the underground hospital run by Dr. Amani Ballor. When Kirkegaard came on board in August 2018, Fayyad had already begun shooting and as soon as Kirkegaard saw the dailies, he knew he would need Fayyad to guide him. “It was so devastating to watch,” he says.

Fayyad was asked to select scenes that he thought would be interesting. “He ended up picking 20 scenes, and that became the backbone of the documentary,” Kirkegaard says. He and co-editor Denniz Göl Bertelsen took that footage to build around the structure.

In total, Fayyad had shot over 500 hours of footage, which meant Kirkegaard was watching children losing limbs and doctors deciding which patients lived or died. “There were days I went home, I just couldn’t do it.”

Kirkegaard explains that the chemical attack was the toughest scene of all to edit. It was also hard for the filmmakers and cinematographers Muhammed Khair Al Shami, Ammar Sulaiman and Mohammed Eyad, who often found themselves conflicted about whether to film and show the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the subsequent suffering, or whether to stop filming and help. Kirkegaard says, “That whole sequence took three weeks to edit. … It was like hell going into work every day.”

Fayyad captured the devastating story, but Kirkegaard explains, “If you watch just the first five minutes, you’ll see the hope.”

That hope is in the form of Amani, the female head of the hospital who is told to go home as it’s not her job to be there. “Keeping that in and having her story sent a strong message to the world. Fayyad was sending this message about this woman trying to make a difference.”

He points out that Fayyad came from a family of strong women and by focusing on Dr. Amani, it showed “his solidarity of what’s going on in the male-dominated society and women fighting for their lives.”

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