“Is God really watching?”
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, The Cave takes us into the darkest of world to show us the smallest light of hope. Director Feras Fayyad received a previous Oscar nomination for his film Last Men in Aleppo. Again we see the destruction that has been happening in Syria and the bravery of some who seek to save others in spite of the risk to their own lives.
Between 2013 and 2018, Al Ghouta, Syria was besieged by government and Russian forces. Gas attacks, frequent bombings, lack of food and supplies, created a city of rubble and despair filled with 400,000 people who now have no way out. A small group of doctors, led by Dr. Amani Ballour and Dr. Salim Namour, seeks to tend to the seriously injured in an underground hospital known as The Cave. Dr. Amani serves as the manager of the hospital, as well as continuing her work as a pediatrician, caring for the many children who have been injured in the bombings, and are suffering malnutrition from the lack of food.
The film immerses us into this subterranean world as we follow Dr. Amani. There are times of chaos and pain. There are quiet times when she and another woman can take part in a bit of girl talk about makeup. There are small celebrations, as for Dr. Amani’s 30th birthday which is feted with popcorn that Dr. Salim imagines as pizza with extra cheese. But throughout we see the suffering of the populace that has been under attack for five years. We see the doctors as they face feelings of helplessness. We see the fear that these doctors live with even as they strive to save others.
There is no commentary to accompany the film. It suffers a bit by not giving viewers any context for the conflict or the geopolitical issues that allows such savagery to take place. But even without such explanations we realize that we are watching people who are acting heroically in a dangerous situation. Fayyad sets them (as he did with the White Helmets in Last Men in Aleppo) as lights of hope in a world that seems hopeless.
By focusing on Dr. Amani, this film also has a bit of a feminist bent. It only comes up once in the film, but Syrian society frowns on women working, especially in authority. But in this film we see not only Dr. Amani, but other women (especially Dr. Alaa and nurse Samaher) doing important work and saving lives of many people.
The film opens and closes with brief, poetic voice overs by Dr. Amani. They speak of light and hope. One of the lines the struck me was “I wonder if there is any space for justice.” For me this may be the key question that gnaws at me watching this. The UN has declared the siege of Al Ghouta as a war crime against humanity. But will there ever be justice? The film never asks, but I don’t know how viewers cannot ask how the world allows this to go on. Even when the world knows that the government has broken international law by using chemical weapons against its own people, nothing has been done.
National Geographic, who is the distributor for the film, offers some ways to take action at their website for the film. (The film can be screened on the National Geographic app.) I especially recommend reading Dr. Amani’s own account that is linked to there, and to consider signing the petition calling for the world to acknowledge what is happening and act.
Photos courtesy of National Geographic