Feras Fayyad’s 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Last Men in Aleppo was a gritty experiential diary following the White Helmets, volunteer rescuers in the war-torn northwestern town of Aleppo. His follow-up feature The Cave returns to the region. In dedication, generosity and quiet, no-nonsense heroism, The Cave’s main protagonist, doctor Amani Ballor, who manages a hospital-cum-refugee centre in Ghouta, resembles the men portrayed in Last Men in Aleppo.
Syria, Denmark, Germany, USA, Qatar, 2019
Director Feras Fayyad
UK distributor Dogwoof
But there is also a crucial difference: Ballor is a woman, and her very right to save lives, as a manger and doctor, is constantly being questioned – sometimes by the very men whose families she is trying to help. As the action follows Ballor’s daily routine, from surgeries after attacks to sleepless nocturnal vigils, Ballor fends off the pressure from her parents to quit, and justifies herself before men as a decision-maker. Acute sociological tension mingles with the physical and psychological terror of bombings and of the chemical attack.
Fayyad’s keen interest in Ballor goes beyond her soft yet unyielding power. She is first and foremost a body in motion – her movements, stillness, even her breathing, of uttermost importance. In some scenes, the sound of Ballor’s breathing is amplified, as it is with the falling bombs, to reflect just how keenly Ballor experiences their racket, and to make us feel not just the noise of the explosions but also the building’s vibrations, the cluttering of feet and steel objects, and the earth’s shaking.
In this sense, The Cave is very much a war film – like the classic European war films, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) to Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night (1968) or Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977), The Cave privileges the protagonists’ point of view over a straightforward recording of immense destruction. Camera and sound design draw us into the action primarily through its effect on the hospital staff’s emotional, sensory states.
Fayyad, whose inspiration for the cinematography was based on 19th-century painting – painters such as Jean Louis David and Georges La Tour – keeps the cameras as still as possible, observing the comings and goings in the hospital hallways, peering from behind at the drama of the operating room, with the depth of field giving us a rich sense of the tense yet united choreography of nurses helping the main surgeon, Salim.
In this choreography, the synchronicity between the surgeon and the women assisting him is essential. Ballor and her team also descend into the sepulchral passageways that take them into the caves, which serve as improvised underground shelters. Above ground, the women’s bravery is matched by the equal poise of the small children – many of them girls – who are brought in to the emergency room immediately after the savage chemical attack. Here Fayyad’s metaphors create echoes – between the cruel lucid brightness above and the protective shadows below, between stillness and chaos, agony and hope. None of this world is strictly oppositional; instead the two realms permeate each other – a vision of no immediate solace but resolute defiance.