Why 'The Cave' Director Put Himself in Danger (Again) to Bring Syria's Bloody Civil War to the Screen

Documentary - The? Cave-National Geographic Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of National Geographic

The documentary, earning director Feras Fayyad his second Oscar nomination, underscores his singular commitment to show the conflict from a female doctor's perspective.

Feras Fayyad would have been forgiven for not wanting to return to Syria.

After winning a Sundance grand jury prize and an Oscar nomination for his 2017 feature doc, Last Men in Aleppo, which follows the work of Syria's White Helmets volunteer force, the filmmaker was warned in no uncertain terms that his success would make him a more visible target for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime.

Having already been arrested and tortured twice by Syrian troops in 2011, Fayyad had no desire to return to a jail cell.

"But even though my picture was well known and I knew it was going to be dangerous for me, I still felt that if I didn't use this position — the success, the knowledge and everything I had gained from this movie — then I'm not really a documentary filmmaker," says the soft-spoken 35-year-old. "Because this is where the power of cinema can really make change. It can provide a lot of emotion, empathy and knowledge for people. And if I close my eyes to that, or I feel scared, then I'm not going to make anything."

While shooting Last Men, Fayyad had taken shelter in an underground hospital in a series of tunnels hidden deep beneath the city. It was there that he discovered Dr. Amani Ballour, a pediatrician overseeing a team of brave doctors staffing the makeshift medical space. Limited by his ability to return easily to Syria, Fayyad worked from Copenhagen, with a trio of cinematographers on the ground, to capture the efforts of Ballour and her colleagues. The result is National Geographic Documentary Films' The Cave, which has earned Fayyad another Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.

Despite scant resources and difficult circumstances, the young doctor works tirelessly to help wounded men, women and children, withstanding a barrage of daily bombing as well as the sexism of Syrian culture. At times in the film, young men beg Ballour for assistance while simultaneously chiding her for taking on a man's job.

Ballour, who recently was awarded the Council of Europe's prestigious Raoul Wallenberg Prize for her human rights work, knew the risk of appearing on camera, Fayyad says. "She just said, 'Yes, I want to do this, whatever the cost.' "

In all, the director and his team shot more than 400 hours of material. But capturing the footage was only half the battle. Next came the long process of sifting through distressing and often very graphic imagery, seeking a balance between showing the reality of war and omitting scenes that were just too violent.

The finished doc, which premiered in September at the Toronto fest, shows victims of Russian chemical weapons attacks, minors in extreme distress and suffering serious injury, and parents grieving for their maimed and murdered children.

But even more disturbing material was left on the cutting-room floor, Fayyad says. "We actually tried not to use extremely violent images. We had so much hard footage — tough in a way I don't think any human can handle. My editor and I had to go to therapy every day and every week."

Eventually, the director brought on a team of editors, rotating them periodically to offer some respite. The resulting doc is one of the most challenging but also most important films in the awards race, presenting a clear chronicle of beleaguered heroes battling atrocious human rights abuses.

With The Cave bringing Fayyad accolades — and a second shot at an Oscar — one might understand if the director were finished covering the Syrian conflict onscreen.

And yet …

"I have another project in mind about the rule of law in Syria," he reveals. "There are a group of lawyers trying to rebuild the justice system there. This is the most interesting project on my mind right now. I just don't know if I can do it. I feel like maybe I need to take a step back. This subject, it's taken so much from me."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.