by C.J. Hirschfield
In October, 2019 it was announced that while America may be pulling its troops out of Syria, we are nonetheless sending armored vehicles to protect oil fields. Our president’s philosophy about the people who have lived there with war for eight years? “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand there that they can play with.” In effect, saying who cares? It’s just sand.
But it’s not just sand. It’s besieged civilians– seniors, parents, children and infants– who want nothing more than to survive, and to stay in their homes. They’ve lived with war for years. And their stories must be told, as hard as they are to see and comprehend.
Oscar nominee Feras Fayyad (LAST MAN IN ALLEPO) has given us an unflinching look at the Syrian war with his new documentary, THE CAVE where hope and safety lie in the aptly named subterranean hospital.
Focusing on pediatrician and managing physician Dr. Amani Ballour, who is supported by her female colleagues Samaher and Dr. Alaa, the film not only documents the daily horrors of war perpetrated by the Syrian regime and the Russians, but the added stress of oppressive sexism the women encounter from community members, and even their own families. Were they above ground in peacetime, the patriarchal society would never have let them lead. In one telling scene, an anguished father refuses to accept Amani’s news that there is no medicine available for his child; he asks to talk to the man in charge. When Amani states that she is the one in charge, he tells her that “women should stay at home.” In the surreal world in which they both find themselves, this exchange is heartbreaking on many levels. Sadly, this IS Amani’s home.
THE CAVE itself is a wonder. A complex network of tunnels, basement shelters and an underground hospital, there is also a children’s playroom, complete with rocking horses and colorful art. There is a small wood stove, where huge vats of rice and hummus are made to serve the 150 or so workers. The ingenuity of the medical team and staff is remarkable, but their pain, frustration, anger and sadness are emotions that are never far from the surface.
Footage of the horrors of war in Eastern Al Ghouta, considered the longest continuous siege in recent history, is admittedly hard to watch. Daily bombardments, chronic medical supply and food shortages, and the pain of young children is their world.
But it is when the chemical attacks begin that the extraordinarily courageous team—and the audience—sees close-up the most base and horrifying act that one human can inflict on another. They don’t turn away; they can’t. But afterwards, they can– and do—shed tears over what they’ve seen.
The subterranean team turns to music, cigarettes, and each other for comfort. “We don’t have anesthetic, but we do have music,” one doctor says, choosing to operate while symphonic concerts play on his iPhone. Amani’s 30th birthday is celebrated with latex gloves blown up like balloons for decoration, and with participants sharing their dreams of foods they miss most: pizza, tomatoes, chocolate.
The film is based on Amani’s concealed diaries; she has left Syria, and we are told that she is still in flight. She questions whether they can really make a difference, and admits that “I’m afraid that what I saw will haunt me forever.”
Clearly, Syria is not just sand. It’s real people, with real dreams—and very real courage. Their story needs to be told.
THE CAVE opens November 1 in the San Francisco bay area and around North America through November and December. Check here for a list of screenings.
Film Comment interviews director Fera Fayyad.
Dr, Amani was challenging the stereotypes- Read about it at the Danish Film Institute.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”