There is tragedy in losing control where control has been sought as a defense. 

“The Cave” of the title is the nickname for an underground hospital in Ghouta, a district not far outside of the Syrian capital of Damascus. Ghouta has been a flashpoint of violence during the seemingly endless Syrian civil war.  “Underground” works as both a literal and figurative description for the hospital. It is in a series of basements and subbasements, the only place secure enough to withstand bombing raids. It can be accessed through a series of tunnels when things get really tough and it is seemingly supplied and operated through an array of daily barters and miracles. The Cave, the film of which we are discussing, is the follow up to Feras Fayyad’s Oscar-nominated Last Men in Aleppo (2017). The Cave opens quietly and with singular bombs dropped during a spectacular sunrise in Eastern Ghouta. The paradoxic presentation of the sun in the desert interrupted by singular bomb drops impose a specific frailty or vulnerability on to the scene.

It’s from this point where the camera footage leads the viewer down corridors and tunnels filled with families waiting for medical care, fellow doctors, beds, food, so many grocery bags filled with miscellaneous materials; and various supplies. The footage was taken utilizing only cell phone video (sometimes flip phone) taken by medics and other employees of the hospital. It was then edited by Fayad and co-writer Alisar Hasan from a remote location in Amsterdam. Utilizing minimal technologies to document, the recorders still manage to consider the patience, determination, and realism portrayed in the varying shots of surgeries, dinner prep for the hospital employees and simple day to day tasks that make up care taking for the ill and injured.

The protagonist here is a Syrian pediatrician, activist and founder of the nonprofit foundation Al Amal. She worked for six years at the Cave, and in the film Dr. Amani Ballour both treats and manages the Cave with grace, strength, a great deal of care or empathy, as well as virility. The viewership sits and watches as Dr. Ballour handles children, aids the wounded, argues with male patients or male ‘husbands-of-patients’ about her place as a female– let alone a female doctor. The bulk of the film is the minutia of the experience—the properties of doctoring in a war zone. It’s a war documentary in the style of The Last Days of Vietnam (2014)—the drama, emotion, and heroism of the Vietnam War, with the expansive exception that The Cave exposes no soldiers, only those living amongst the wreckage that is wartime.

There are explosions that interrupt any and all service or daily existence. There are bomb sirens. There are indications of severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, and a sense of the overwhelming. It’s apparent that several doctors, nurses, and cooks have experienced much of the effects of war: but despite all of these factors, or perhaps because of, this group of diligent professionals maintain in the helping, serving, laughing, and enjoying.

The high success of The Cave is the ratio and proximity of sympathy to understanding for the victims of the Syrian war that the viewer is pushed into experiencing. This film is not a victimization. Yes, everyone in this film is clearly a victim of war. But you will see no victimhood—being filmed by those also experiencing the doctoring, you experience the agency of the shooter. The Cave fully recognizes the values of each of the characters that are realized.  You’re witnessing the documentation of survival. This miraculous thing that humans have propagated throughout the millennia. Of all the wars and atrocities that those in power have committed there are thousands of Dr. Armani Ballours’ and Feras Fayyads’ functioning in the way that they know to do.  In documenting the minutia, Fayyad documents our shared humanity, severity, and hopefulness.

In 2015, the Cave was bombed by Russian warplanes, killing three male nurses and injuring two female nurses, including Dr. Ballour’s friend Samaher. According to an essay Dr. Ballour provided to The Daily Beast,[1]  “she did everything she could to shore up the infrastructure above and below ground so it could withstand bombings. She worked on evacuation plans to ensure the safety of patients and staff knowing that President Bashar al-Assad had been actively targeting hospitals and other civilian structures from the start of the war; Russia hoping on board when it entered the war in 2015.[2]

It is in the last fifteen or so minutes that the plot becomes wrenching. Coincidentally, a medic was filming during a chemical attack that occurred in 2018. Victims of the attack begin pouring into the hospital without wounds, but with quick deteriorations. Once hospital staff and doctors begin to recognize the smell of bleach they began to realize it’s too late for most of their active patients in addition to being drastically understaffed for such an event. The viewership is required to witness the complete deterioration of doctoral virility. We see the victims—the nameless that enter the secret hospital arriving to death without any apparent wounds. And they are powerless. Theirs is a collapse of ability that triggers sobbing, whaling, and immense grief that leaves the viewer breathless—as if that even matters. This astounding group of people have formulated their emotional protection within a finite control of their experience. It is the not being able to repair, not being able to console, and not being able to doctor that breaks them into their parts. To not doctor. This is where the heartbreak and the attack approaches the viewers’ understanding, regardless of their experience of war.

This film was presented by the Speed Museum’s Cinema, but you can view it with a Hulu membership or through Google Play. It’s imperative to watch.

–Megan Bickel

[1]Dr. Ballour, Amani. “My Hospital Was Bombed By Putin and Assad. Why Won’t America Hear Our Cries.” The Daily Beast. November 1st, 2019.

[2] Baynard, Anne. “Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad.” New York Times. April, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *