Feras Fayyad’s “The Cave” plunges viewers into the midst of Syria’s civil war, reminding audiences of a brutal conflict that doesn’t appear frequently enough on cable news programs or in the headlines of Western newspapers. It viscerally illustrates the human cost of a struggle that is now in its eighth year.
But Fayyad’s documentary, which premieres at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, isn’t just interested in proving the old adage that war is hell. It is also focused on presenting a portrait of an unlikely heroine, Dr. Amani Ballor, a pediatrician and the manager of an underground hospital in besieged Ghouta. Even as bombs drop around her and gunfire echoes in the distance, Ballor takes pains to put her young patients at ease, trying to provide a friendly, sympathetic face in the midst of death and destruction.
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“I wanted people to see that an ordinary woman can do amazing things,” said Fayyad. “Maybe that can change the world. She can remind us that we’re all human and that we have a shared humanity that is more powerful than violence.”
“The Cave” provides a remarkably intimate look at life in the subterranean hospital. It follows Dr. Ballor and her team in light moments like bartering for hard-to-find food supplies like margarine and rice, as well as moments of unspeakable horror. One particularly difficult scene shows the doctors and nurses treating children who have been the victims of a chemical attack.
Fayyad says that Ballor was open to him following her as she made her rounds and did the difficult work of keeping a hospital running in a war zone. But she had one rule.
“She told me, ‘Don’t let your camera stop me from doing what I do,'” remembers Fayyad. “‘What I do is most important. I’m helping to save lives.'”
“The Cave” seems certain to be in the Oscar race for best documentary, both for Fayyad’s bird’s eye view of the battle-ravaged region and because it presents a new kind of feminist heroine. Dr. Ballor isn’t just dealing with a constant bombardment from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his foreign allies. She also has to contend with being a medical professional in a patriarchal society. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a man accuses Dr. Ballor of mismanagement because of her gender and bluntly tells her that her place is in the home.
“A lot of women are strong in our society, but they think they can’t do some things because they are told they cannot,” said Dr. Ballor. “I hope they see this and they are encouraged to do everything they want to do.”
“The Cave” concludes in 2018 with Dr. Ballor displaced from her home, on the road with other refugees in search of safety. Ultimately, she relocated to Turkey. But working as a doctor proved difficult, she says, in part because she still carries the psychological scars from her time treating families and children on the front lines.
“I couldn’t forget the sounds of the airplanes and the bombs,” said Dr. Ballor. “I couldn’t forget the smell of the blood. The thing that affected me the most were the chemical attacks. Every child I saw made me remember those children that had suffocated. It was very difficult.”
Fayyad had previously scored an Oscar nomination for “Last Men in Aleppo,” a look at a volunteer search-and-rescue group in the bombed-out Syrian city. He hopes that by returning to the conflict with “The Cave,” he can pressure the international community to grapple with a war it has been all too eager to ignore.
“I want to remind people of the need to negotiate for peace in Syria and stop the war,” said Fayyad. “I also want them to look through my camera and see the two sides to things. On one side there’s so much pain and hurt, but if you look through that you also find hope and love.”