The powerful documentary “The Cave” could not, alas, be more timely. Directed by Feras Fayyad, who made the remarkable 2017 documentary “Last Men in Aleppo,” the new film is about a subterranean hospital in the besieged town of Ghouta in civil war-torn Syria, where markets, schools, homes, and hospitals were targeted by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a largely successful attempt to get citizens to flee. The primary focus, drawn from hundreds of hours of footage shot between 2016 and 2018, is on the physician Amani Ballour. I’ve rarely seen a more inspiring figure in a movie.
In a culture where women are routinely subjugated, the irony here is that Ballour, along with several other prominently featured female physicians and nurses, worked below ground as equals alongside their male counterparts in a way they would never be allowed above ground. Desperation and expediency leveled the playing field.
Ballour was also the hospital’s manager, leading to some intense resistance from those who couldn’t abide a woman in a position of such authority. In one standoff, the husband of a wounded woman tells Ballour that women should only be wives and mothers.
Ballour will have none of it. “No one tells me what to do,” she says. She condemns men who use religion as a “tool” for the oppression of women. For those rare women whose husbands and fathers allow it, she offers hospital jobs to provide crucial income.
She speaks to her parents periodically on her cellphone, and we hear some of the conversations. Her father worries deeply about her. She consoles him with the rightness of what she is doing, even though, privately, speaking of the wounded, she wonders, “How much can I really help them?” and questions why people in Syria continue to have children at all. You can appreciate her concerns. The most powerful images in “The Cave” are of the baffled and injured children in the hospital. Their faces sear the screen.
Ballour has the staunch support of Salim Namour, the hospital’s chief surgeon, who promoted her to the manager’s job and clearly admires her. He is another of the film’s extraordinary heroes: In the makeshift operating room, often without access to anesthesia or adequate supplies, he soothes the patients with classical music, such as Mozart’s “Requiem,” that he streams from his smartphone.
Because he made a documentary about an exiled Syrian poet’s struggle for freedom of expression, Fayyad in 2011 was imprisoned and tortured for 15 months. Unable to participate directly in the filming of “The Cave” because of the siege, he enlisted three intrepid cinematographers – Muhammed Khair Al Shami, Ammar Sulaiman, and Mohammed Eyad – and worked remotely with them to shape and edit the footage, which utilizes no voice-over narration or direct-to-camera interviews. The dangers in making this movie are obviously ever-present. Chemical weapons attacks and Russian war planes have reduced the aboveground terrain to rubble and continually threaten the subterranean hospital. The film ends with the hospital’s shutdown following the Assad government’s regained control of the region.
This ending should be devastating – it is devastating – but what I took away from “The Cave” was the resilience of the hospital workers, especially Ballour, who vows to return to Syria when the regime changes. (According to the film’s production notes, she currently lives in Turkey.) She has said that she agreed to participate in this film because she wanted the truth of what was happening to be known. She is particularly supportive of the young girls she treats in the hospital. To one of them she says, “We don’t have to be ordinary. We have to be something important.”
It is left to her father to offer the most resonant of consolations. “People,” he tells her, “will forget the war at some point but they will never forget you. I am proud of you.”
In Arabic and English with English subtitles. Rated PG-13 for disturbing war-related thematic content and images.