THE STORY – Amidst air strikes and bombings, a group of female doctors in Ghouta, Syria struggle with systemic sexism while trying to care for the injured using limited resources.
THE CAST – Amani Ballour & Salim Namour
THE TEAM – Feras Fayyad (Director/Writer) & Alisar Hasan (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
In the stunning opening moments of Feras Fayyad’s documentary, “The Cave,” we’re looking out over a calm city. Suddenly, bombs are dropped, only visible as small specks in the frame, as clouds of dust fly into the sky. The camera then lowers down through the bombed-out roof, through the floor, and into the earth, until it settles in a hallway. This is the Cave, an underground series of tunnels that function as a hospital. It’s a tragic place to be, but those who run the hospital bring hope and purpose to a people struggling to find it.
Here, we meet Amani Ballour, the young pediatrician elected hospital manager. The film largely stays centered on her story. Her role seems unusual for the region – a young woman in power. Multiple times throughout the film we see men decrying her position, as they believe she should be at home instead of working. Each time, Ballour stands up for herself in the face of this opposition. “No one can tell me what to do.”
“The Cave” immerses the audience in the world of this hospital. It can be claustrophobic, with everything filmed in such tight quarters, but it’s always intimate. Naturally, the hospital sees plenty of carnage. Images of children gasping for air after chemical attacks, and men wounded and bloodied are never easy to watch, but they’re shown with some restraint. Instead, we see slices of life, both mundane and horrifying. In some lighter moments, one woman must cook for the 150 people in the hospital, attempting to gather whatever ingredients are available, and yells at the men for complaining about how her rice tastes. Moments later, bombs rattle the room, forcing her to take cover. She laughs when she realizes they were further in the distance. This is just another day for them.
Ballour is a compelling subject. Yes, her age and gender set her apart, but she’s also tenacious and skilled. Throughout the entire film, she’s able to comfort children, keeping them calm while trying to tend to their often serious wounds. In one particularly beautiful scene, Ballour comforts a girl terrified because of the bombs. She relates to her, tells the girl about her own personal fears and how she copes. “Why are we alive?” she asks. “We live so we can become something important. We don’t want to be just ordinary.” Ballour is full of purpose. It’s impossible to not be moved by her passion.
Witnessing moments as they interrupt everyday life is jarring in the most effective way possible. A surgeon named Salim breaks down in tears after a patient dies. “There’s nothing we can do for them,” Salim yells, almost pleading for this to end. He smokes a cigarette, wipes off his face, and then goes back to work. The film excels in its fly-on-the-wall style, observing the goings-on in the hospital. Occasional poetic narration from Ballour feels a little discordant with this observant style of the film, though. It feels tacked on, added to try and bridge gaps rather than enlighten the story. The content of the narration is well written, but doesn’t blend in well with the rest of the film. Still, these are minor issues in a film this powerful.
“The Cave” is one of the numerous documentaries about current life in Syria recently, including Fayyad’s own “Last Men In Aleppo,” and fellow Oscar-nominated film “For Sama.” Like those films, “The Cave” gives a glimpse into the humanity that can be too easily overlooked. It also reminds us of the hope that they’re able to find even in the midst of tragedy. It’s painful, necessary, and beautifully captured.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – In the midst of unbearable terror, this film shows the unbelievable bravery it takes to care for those who need it. It’s gut-wrenching and painful, but vital.
THE BAD – The film doesn’t always balance the calm, almost poetic narration with the intensity of the hospital well. It sometimes feels disjointed. Nevertheless, it doesn’t diminish the power of the film.