Just two years ago, Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Last Men In Aleppo. The gut-wrenching portrait of the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group risking their lives to help the wounded at the epicenter of the Syrian Civil War, subsequently earned them an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. In the midst of all this attention, Fayyad continued to film in Syria.
The footage he shot, between 2016 and 2018, would become The Cave, a spiritual sequel and companion piece to Aleppo. This film is about an incredible team of women doctors who endlessly treat the wounded in an underground hospital in the city of Ghouta, the last rebel-held enclave bordering the Syrian capital, Damascus. It had its world premiere as the opening night film at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and understandably took home the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries.
After setting the scene with stunning landscapes of the wreckage of what used to be a bustling city, Fayyad thrusts us into the vast underground network of surgeons and makeshift nurses. As bombs continue to drop, the small but mighty medical team attempts to treat the wounded and aid the sick. The grave sense of danger and urgency that propelled Aleppo similarly drives this narrative.
Bleeding bodies are carried in by hand as the hospital walls seem at risk of collapsing at any moment. At the center of it all is Dr. Amani, a 30-year-old woman who was in the midst of her medical studies to become a pediatrician when the war broke out. As others chose to flee, she and her colleagues decided to take it upon themselves to continue serving medical aid to those in desperate need.
In the deeply sexist society of Syria, Amani’s position as the head of a hospital is often an immensely challenging one. She was elected (twice!) by her colleagues — many of whom are men and older than her — to lead the team due to her strength of will, deep devotion to her patients and team, vast medical knowledge, superior social skills, and intrepid spirit under extreme duress. Yet she still comes under fire from the occasional male patient who believes he isn’t getting the treatment he deserves, solely because she is a woman. Considering the situation, the accusation is absolutely ludicrous, and Amani and her colleagues handle it as such, with grace and a touch of anger.
The Cave is proudly a portrait of the power of feminist camaraderie. Amani’s team is mostly made up of women — nurses, cooks, caretakers, and others assigned odd jobs just to get them out of harm’s way — and all of them share in the perils and stresses of living in a war zone. But even so, brief moments of warm humanism are shared underground. The ongoing struggle of cooking for a staff of 100-plus with an unreliable food supply is made a recurring source of humor, while Amani’s birthday is lovingly celebrated by her close colleagues.
Even while depicting life and work in a situation overwhelmingly saturated by unimaginable horrors, this astounding film is above all a work of altruistic resilience. Shot with aesthetic rigor by a trio of cinematographers (Mohammad Kheir, Ammar Suleiman, and Mohammad Eyad) The Cave alternates between the rush of bodily emergency and the reflective aftermath where the shock of the situation rolls back and emotions are left to spill over.
No man or woman is impervious to a constant state of high alert, yet Amani and her team wipe away the tears and continue on knowing no one else will be there to fill their shoes if they quit. These are remarkable humans, and deservingly, Fayyad has fashioned a remarkable portrait in their honor.