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‘The Cave’: The Incredible Story Behind the Making of Feras Fayyad’s Documentary About Syria

Al Ghouta, Syria - Dr Amani
National Geographic

Feras Fayyad risked his own life to bring “The Cave,” his harrowing look at a team of female doctors tending to the wounded in the midst of the Syrian War, to the screen.

The acclaimed documentary is short-listed for an Academy Award and has earned rave reviews for its unflinching portrait of heroism in the face of a complete social breakdown. In addition to its artistic achievements, “The Cave” also represents an extraordinary endurance act on the part the filmmakers.

Fayyad and his primary cinematographers Muhammed Khair Al Shami, Ammar Sulaiman and Mohammed Eyad, followed Dr. Amani Ballor, a pediatrician and the manager of an underground hospital in war-torn Al Ghouta, as she tended to patients and tried to maintain morale as bombs dropped all around her and her team. Between 2012 to 2018, they shot roughly 1,000 hours of material.

Capturing the story required Fayyad to improvise ways to smuggle himself and encrypted flash drives containing his footage across the border. It was a process made all the more complicated by the fact that the area was completely under siege. All roads and civilian centers — especially hospitals — were the main targets of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime and of his Russian allies, who were providing fighter planes and missiles to help keep the strongman in power.

“I had to move between places every three days,” said Fayyad. “If I stayed, I could be kidnapped or targeted.”

He also had to be careful to ensure that his footage didn’t fall into the wrong hands. He was worried that if it did, the Assad regime could figure out the location of Dr. Amani and the hospital and bomb it. Initially, the plan had been to use a satellite internet device to transmit the footage to producers Kirstine Barfod and Sigrid Dyekjær, who were based in Denmark, but the satellite was bombed and destroyed in the middle of production. That required Fayyad to figure out ways to sneak the completed footage across the Turkish-controlled border. Often, the producers would have to hope for the best, going months without being able to reach the director. When they were able to communicate, Fayyad, Barfod, and Dyekjær relied on secure means of communication such as WhatsApp and Signal.

This map, created by Christina X. Mui,  illustrates the professional and personal ordeal that Fayyad and “The Cave” team endured to make the film.

The Cave map

“We didn’t have experience doing films in war zones, but that’s probably a good thing because we weren’t scared off by how difficult it was going to be,” said Barfod.

Making things all the more complicated and risky was the fact that Fayyad had already been imprisoned on multiple occasions, during which he was tortured by Syrian authorities. His previous work, “Last Men in Aleppo,” a look at a volunteer search-and-rescue group in the bombed-out Syrian city, painted a devastating portrait of a country in crisis, one that didn’t endear him to the Assad regime. He was a marked man.

“It’s my country and it’s my belief that by holding up a mirror and showing the problems and the impact on the people, maybe I can help the country change,” said Fayyad. “For me, it’s personal.”

Capturing a country at war in”The Cave” presented moral dilemmas for the filmmakers. There are scenes of children who have been gassed or hurt in bombings, and it was often difficult to remain at a remove from the carnage around them.

In a joint statement, Al Shami, Sulaiman, and Eyad said, “While we were filming the events in ‘The Cave’ we were often faced with two options: whether to document the great suffering that was taking place in front of our very eyes, or to put our cameras down to help the injured and the victims. There were countless times we would stop shooting in order to assist the paramedics in transporting the wounded.”

Fayyad says he’s amazed that he was able to complete the project, not just because of the logistical challenges, but because he had to convince Dr. Amani to open up her clinic to cameras.

“I think what we did was a miracle,” said Fayyad. “We weren’t just facing the Syrian regime or the Russians, we were facing a conservative community.”

“Dr. Amani risked everything to talk to us about her role in this patriarchal society,” said Dyekjær.

Fayyad spoke to Variety during a recent visit to the United States to promote “The Cave.” With the awards season buzz building, he’d like to return to the country for screenings and industry gatherings, but is having issues with obtaining a visa.

“While waiting in Copenhagen over the holidays for the US Embassy to once again review his application for entry to the US after initially refusing him entry, Feras learned that his family, specifically his parents, were in great danger in Syria, and had to flee their home,” a spokesperson for the director told Variety. “He is right now helping and supporting his siblings and parents. When he is able to return to Copenhagen, we are hopeful the US Embassy will grant him entry to the US so he can resume touring with the film.  While the events portrayed in ‘The Cave’ take place largely between 2016-2018, the situation has not improved, and in many areas has in fact gotten worse.  For Feras and his family, the horrors of war are still very much a reality of their daily lives.”