In his newest documentary, The Cave, director Feras Fayyad (Last Men in Aleppo) steers viewers into one small corner of the ongoing Syrian civil war via the story of pediatrician and hospital manager Dr. Amani Ballour and her team of medical professionals and patients. As warplanes repeatedly bombard the hollowed-out hellscape that is the city of Ghouta, Amani and her team must work around the clock below the surface, in their underground medical center that goes by the titular name. A steady stream of patients constantly tries the strength and will of the medical team as the trauma and shellshock of war slowly wear away everyone’s ability to function under the extreme pressure of emergency medicine in a 24/7 war zone.
Fayyad’s documentary nicely avoids being overtly political — there aren’t explicit explanations of the reasoning behind the actions of Syria, Russia or the Syrian rebels. Instead, he does an excellent job focusing on the humanity of the situation. What viewers witness are the civilian costs of a political war: the tragic casualties of innocent lives and limbs lost in bombings and chemical attacks.
Above all else, The Cave delivers a powerful study of the resolve of the human spirit despite severe stress and abject helplessness. Amani’s voicemails reveal her father in another city, pleading with her to evacuate, while she also grapples on the ground with the traditional religious worldviews of patients who criticize her for doing this work as a woman, rather than fulfill a traditional role as mother and wife in the domestic sphere. All of these challenges occur while the hospital struggles to keep up with the influx of patients after each new bombing — its resources depleted without any sign of relief.
It’s easy for Western viewers to feel removed from the true tragedies of a faraway war, particularly the face of modern warfare. The Cave bears witness to the individual human consequences of the upheaval in present-day Syria, and it is important for these tragedies to be seen and reckoned with by the world, particularly in light of the fact that this war is still playing out today.
Now playing at Grail Moviehouse