Documentary Releases: The Cave (2019) - Reviewed

Syrian born documentary filmmaker Feras Fayyad has been fighting long and hard to get his films about the Syrian conflict seen.  Between his eight months of time spent in a Syrian prison where he was beaten and starved after making his film On the Other Side, Fayyad’s first brush with Academy Award recognition began in 2017 with his Oscar nominated documentary Last Man in Aleppo but was unable to attend the ceremony due to President Trump’s Executive Order travel ban. 

Two years later with his Oscar nominated National Geographic documentary film The Cave, history is repeating itself with the embattled filmmaker being denied his US visa once again.  For all of Fayyad’s guerilla efforts and sacrifices made to smuggle footage out of the danger zone, setting foot in the country where most viewers will have a chance to see his film has proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.  Hopefully an appeal goes through and Fayyad can attend the Academy Awards as his film about the secret underground hospital in war-torn Syria known only as The Cave is nothing short of extraordinary and astounding!

Focusing on the work of pediatrician and managing physician Dr. Amani Ballour within the carefully excavated inner tunnels making up the secret underground hospital, The Cave presents the hardships of being a female doctor in a male dominated society which frowns on independent thinking women.  Highlighting the boundless courage and heroism undertaken by Ballour, caring selflessly for patients as bombs and chemical attacks rain down above the hospital, The Cave presents the staff burrowed underground as a group of people in the medical field who were presented with and ultimately refused the option to leave the country.  For these individuals who stayed behind for what is ultimately a volunteer effort, a better and safer life were secondary to giving those help who otherwise have none available to them.

Much like the Danish documentary Burma VJ, one is filled with an overwhelming sense of danger and fear at all times with the footage capturing the few survivors in hiding while the war playing out in the outside world rages on.  What’s especially striking about The Cave is how in the face of hardship, the hospital crew is frequently seen joking around with one another and finding ways to spread a little happiness within their underground lair.  Most of all though, it paints a portrait of extraordinary heroism on the part of Dr. Ballour who is in a constant uphill battle trying to provide care to her patients with half of the medical supplies she needs available to her.  How one can find the capacity to carry on under such dire and hopeless circumstances is kind of miraculous to witness.

Photographed sneakily by the crew’s three cinematographers, ranging between wide-angled vistas of the war torn city and hand-held close-ups within the hospital hallways, one is left with a sense of the hospital’s vastness as well as the claustrophobia of the tightly packed quarters.  Aiding the stunning footage is a somber score by Matthew Herbert whose aching, mournful music permeates the world of the hospital like a dark cloud.  Watching The Cave, you fear for all involved, especially during one terrifying episode in which a chemical attack seeps into the hospital walls.  There aren’t many documentaries being made today where the filmmakers are clearly in as much danger as the subjects on camera.

Up for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, The Cave is not easy viewing but has the capacity to forever alter your outlook on the world you thought you once knew.  The conflict itself seems unresolvable at this juncture, but that such a vast network of life could be living underneath all of that with dedicated individuals giving up their freedom and their lives to serve those still enmeshed in the war zone is genuinely an amazing sight to see.  The heroism and selfless compassion on display here will bring you to your knees.  The war is far from over for filmmaker Feras Fayyad, but with his powerful and moving documentary The Cave he scored a triumphant victory!

--Andrew Kotwicki