'The Cave': Film Review | TIFF 2019

A stirring, tough, beautifully made documentary.

Feras Fayyad’s companion piece to his Oscar-nominated 'Last Men in Aleppo' follows a woman doctor in an underground hospital as she treats victims of the Syrian conflict.

As the Syrian conflict goes on, more and more stories emerge that are both horrific in their precise, up-close view of suffering and inspiring in their attention to humanitarians who are helping the victims of war. In The Cave, Feras Fayyad, director of the Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary Last Men in Aleppo, delivers an especially poignant, eye-opening addition to that list.

In a town outside Damascus, where civilians live in constant danger of the missile and chemical weapon attacks employed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a hospital known as The Cave has been set up in a series of tunnels and underground rooms. Similarly to Last Men in Aleppo, which followed several members of the White Helmets as they rescued victims from the rubble, The Cave focuses on a few individuals, without narration. At the center is a young woman doctor, Amani Ballor, known as Dr. Amani, a pediatrician who treats a constant stream of wounded children.

Fayyad and his cinematographers and editors wield the cameras and shape the scenes in the documentary so beautifully that The Cave is both intensely real and a carefully wrought work of cinema. A kind of counterpart to Last Men, the new film is perhaps more wrenching and even more ambitious in its visuals.

The underground hospital was created after indiscriminate attacks kept damaging the above-ground hospitals in the town of Eastern Al Gouta. As the cameras travel thorough the dark tunnels into cramped treatment rooms, we see that the hospital is professionally equipped with incubators and operating equipment. But because the region has been surrounded by military forces, supplies and medicine are scarce. Dr. Amani says she has not left the town in six years. Her colleagues include a terse but devoted male doctor named Dr. Salim, and a woman nurse called Samaher, whose struggle to remain upbeat is conspicuous and heart wrenching.

Dr. Amani is the film’s undoubted heroine, though, and she adds a layer of feminist outrage. She is the hospital’s manager as well as a physician. In one early scene, a man berates her because his wife does not have medicine, blaming it on the fact that a woman is running the hospital. Dr. Amani says a man couldn’t have gotten medicine into the town, either, but then Dr. Salim steps in, informing the patient’s husband that Dr. Amani has been elected to her position by her colleagues, twice, and is very good at her job.

Amani and Salim get along, but her face falls in silent disappointment when he steps in here. We see how ingrained sexism is in the culture, and that resisting it is a daily challenge for her, no matter how well-meaning her supporters. When she talks on the phone to her family, her own father warns her that as a woman she will never get the professional respect she deserves. Without a hint that his cameras are there, Fayyad stands back and lets these scenes speak for themselves, which they do eloquently.

Occasionally the film moves outside. When they hear noises overhead, Dr. Amani and other hospital workers go out to look at the sky, asking each other if Russian warplanes are approaching. On another afternoon, she and some colleagues make a house call to a mother and her four malnourished children. The mother says she cannot earn money to feed them because men won’t let her get a job, and during the car ride back to the hospital Amani explodes in anger at such patriarchal idiocy. But above all, she continues treating children who arrive at The Cave, some of them with their mouths full of rubble and others with bleeding head wounds following missile attacks. 

All of this is caught with extraordinary visual grace. Unobtrusive when they need to be, the cameras also deliver moments of great flair. There are long tracking shots through the caves, as well as an exterior shot of the not-so-distant landscape as missile after missile lands, sending clouds of dust into the air. Another shot simply captures the still landscape with yellow dust hovering over it.

The documentary’s look is all the more impressive because Fayyad himself was unable to enter Al Gouta and The Cave due to the military presence surrounding the area. He enlisted three cameramen from Damascus whom he communicated with remotely. Their equipment was basic, but the darkened lighting works to suggest the grim underground reality of the situation.

For much of the film, which was shot through 2017 into spring 2018, Fayyad depicts the dailiness of the hospital, the endless struggle between hopelessness and hope. But the doc builds toward an excruciating conclusion. In March 2018, a chemical attack hit Al Ghouta. The pace of the editing picks up to create a sense of urgency and the soundtrack begins a thumping refrain as we see victims flood into the hospital, adults carrying stunned or crying children, someone delivering a victim in a wheelbarrow. The doctors smell chlorine on the children’s clothes. Behind the harrowing true-life details, we can sense the director shaping the episode, to good effect.

That attack forced the hospital to close. Dr. Amani, clearly and understandably burnt out by her years in The Cave, has since left Syria. A brief epilogue, which begins underwater to suggest her exile abroad, and rises to capture a clear blue sky, feels extraneous, adding a forced, final tone of optimism. It is the only false note in this emotionally moving, socially relevant and artistic film.

Production company: Danish Documentary Production
Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films
Director: Feras Fayyad
Screenwriters: Alisar Hasan, Feras Fayyad
Producers: Kirstine Barfod, Sigrid Jonsson Dyekjaer
Cinematography: Mohammad Kheir, Ammar Suleiman, Mohammad Eyad
Editors: Per K. Kirkegaard, Denniz Gol Bertelsen
Music: Matthew Herbert
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)

95 minutes