Feras Fayyad’s new doc is a heartbreaking but hopeful story of how resilience can overcome suffering
In his much-anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-nominated LAST MEN IN ALEPPO, Syrian documentary filmmaker Feras Fayyad continues to focus on Syria’s anonymous heroes who have saved countless lives. In THE CAVE, he shifts the focus from the White Helmets to one of Syria’s underground hospitals, dubbed ‘The Cave’ led by a determined female doctor (Dr. Amani Ballour).
More than a story of suffering, THE CAVE is ultimately a story of resilience. But what makes this doc truly stand out is its approach: in mixing the intimate with the universal, the personal with the political, Fayyad creates a deeply touching commentary on the heroes who we pass by in the streets or see in the far backgrounds of news reports yet never know them by name nor understand – or come to fully appreciate – their sacrifices. In watching Dr. Amani’s story from the comfort of our seats in cineplexes or at home, we are reminded that it’s never easy to fully grasp what life was in those underground bunkers that have seen thousands of civilians clinging to life while others have forcibly left it.
Fayyad goes for an intimate approach that is, perhaps surprisingly, not as grim as one would expect from Syria-themed docs. While not shying away from showing the countless casualties, the horrific moments of fears, the war-torn neighborhoods and the traces of a life that once was, he is keen on adding moments of joy, hope and survival that not only lift the picture’s otherwise somber mood, but also offers a unique window into those rare moments of hope that Dr. Amani and her colleagues could snatch away from their bleak days. The film’s best scenes are, unexpectedly, those of the Cave’s doctors gathering for lunch, trying out a new meal, or making a surprise birthday party for Dr. Amani. This genuine emotion imbues the doc with much-needed positive realism, even if what follows and precedes it are gut-wrenching scenes of death and despair.
Aside from celebrating Dr. Amani as a hero, Fayyad tries to highlight the film’s feminist agenda, reflecting on a country where women are still seen in the shadow of men and denied opportunities to work. Fayyad’s focus on this agenda works to some extent, but comes off as less subtle in some scenes that feel staged and contrived. The conversations between Dr. Amani and men about the power of women feel somewhat out of place given the context of the Cave and the stakes at hand; and some of the film’s dialogue – inspired by Dr. Amani’s own diaries – feels slightly on-the-nose and more of a directorial statement than Amani’s own thoughts. Still, those few moments do not detract from the picture’s overall ambition and effectiveness.
Assembling an impeccable team of camera men, sound editors and sound designers, Feras manages to create a fully immersive atmosphere that, despite the horrors of war, still is able to find moments of beauty and grace in between. And the astonishing sound design fully immerses viewers in a horrifying, singular atmosphere in which sounds of flying aircrafts and near-by bombs are even more chilling when heard in caves and tunnels than on the ground. When Amani and her team decide to move the children to an underground ward, the menacing sounds of war above threaten to chatter everything that Amani and her team have worked for.
In one of the doc’s most effecting exchanges, Amani asks a child what she’d like to become when she grows up. ‘I want to be someone important’, she replies, and Dr. Amani, being only 30 years old, says she shares the same dream. But she is already one- an important hero in an underground cave who saves countless lives. But true heroes, like Amani, never consider themselves as such.
Verdict: A chilling portrait of resilience and female power during war, THE CAVE is immersive, terrifying and hopeful. A tribute to invisible heroes in underground caves who deserve their moment under the sun.
This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.