The civil war in Syria has led to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 21st century, and documentary filmmakers have been paying attention. For the last four years, films about the attacks on Syrian citizens by the Assad regime with the help of the Russian military, and about the resultant flood of refugees trying to flee the country, have surfaced at nearly every film festival that showcases nonfiction filmmaking.
The latest is “The Cave,” which opened the documentary program at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
“The Cave” follows on the heels of 2017’s “Cries From Syria,” “City of Ghosts,” “Hell on Earth” and the Oscar-nominated “Last Men in Aleppo,” 2018’s “Of Fathers and Sons” and of the Oscar-nominated short docs “Lifeboat,” “Watani: My Homeland,” “4.1 Miles” and “The White Helmets” (which won), as well as “For Sama” which provoked a strong response at this year’s Cannes film festival in May. All of them demonstrate how filmmakers continue to speak out – and to grapple with the question of what’s left to say.
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The film was made by Feras Fayyad, who became the first Syrian director to be nominated for an Oscar for “Last Men in Aleppo” two years ago. (He also won an Emmy.) His NatGeo film finds another new angle on Syria by quite literally going beneath the surface, to an underground hospital in the city of Ghouta.
With Ghouta under constant bombardment by Assad’s military and by Russian warplanes, a group of doctors have moved their medical facilities into a network of tunnels and rooms beneath the city. The hospital, nicknamed the Cave, is run by a woman, Dr. Amani, whose very presence is a threat to some: When one man shows up to get medicine for his wife, he lectures the staff that women should be “at home with the family,” not running a hospital.
“We voted twice,” says a male doctor on staff. “She won both times.”
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But while the cultural sexism runs deep, it is the least of Dr. Amani’s battles in “The Cave.” With crude facilities and little or no medicine in a city under constant attack, she plays classical music on her iPhone in lieu of anesthetic and tells her staff, “Let’s keep smiling for the children. That’s the least we can do.”
Fayyad’s cameras roam freely through the hospital and paint an intimate picture of the facility in which many of the patients are indeed children who’ve grown up under the shadow of warplanes. The footage of injured children and malnourished babies is wrenching and hard to watch, to the point where you wonder how Dr. Amani and her colleagues can fail to succumb to hopelessness and rage.
And yet while some of them do – in the halls of the hospital, “Is God really watching?” sounds like the ultimate cry of despair – Amani reacts to impossible situations with a grim determination and a succinct, “I’ll find a solution.”
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Except that sometimes she can’t find a solution. This becomes clear late in the film, when an apparent chemical attack hits the city, with the smell of chlorine gas strong in the hospital corridors and “people dying without any injuries,” in the words of one doctor.
The doctors grow quiet in the aftermath of the attack, and so does the film. Fayyad lets it sink in as Amani sits in the hospital drained, then walks through the burning rubble of her town. And in the aftermath of that 2018 attack, a deal was struck that forced the remaining residents of Ghouta to evacuate to refugee camps in northern Syria.
“The things we’ve seen there,” she says quietly as she leaves, and then adds, “When the regime disappears, I will be back.” But she follows that declaration with a small shake of her head that suggests she’s not really sure that will happen.
Dr. Amani, the end credits tell us, now lives somewhere outside of Syria. And as she’s leaving the Cave and what’s left of the city, she offers a simple lament that is entirely understandable to an audience that has seen the film:
“I’m afraid that what I saw will haunt me forever.”