The heroine of Feras Fayyad’s new National Geographic documentary “The Cave” could never be seen. Dr. Amani Ballor is a pediatrician and the first female manager of a hospital in Syria — except her hospital was subterranean. The titular cave is an underground makeshift hospital that Dr. Amani and other doctors created in the midst of Syria’s civil war to treat civilians, as bombs and gunfire and chemical attacks — captured in the film — break out above them.
Fayyad, who became the first Syrian director to be nominated for an Oscar when his 2017 doc “Last Man in Aleppo” was up for Best Documentary, shared during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Documentary panel, moderated by this author (watch above), that he actually started filming footage for what would become “The Cave” — there are cave hospitals all over Syria — before he made “Last Man in Aleppo,” which followed the search-and-rescue team the White Helmets.
“In 2013, I started documenting ‘The Cave,’ which wasn’t that big. There was just a small medical point and then I couldn’t continue because I was already jailed and captured by the Syrian regime [for filming anti-government protests]. So I left for northern Syrian [when I got out],” Fayyad explained. “The material for ‘The Cave’ started before ‘Last Man in Aleppo,’ but we couldn’t get it out because Dr. Amani and her team were working undercover and the few doctors that were left behind, the Russians and Syrian regime and different terrorist groups were targeting doctors because they wanted to kill them and cut any resources for the lives there.”
Once in northern Syria, where he had to move locations every three days to avoid capture, Fayyad could never go to Dr. Amani’s cave hospital in eastern Ghouta, outside of Damascus. So he hired three cinematographers to film inside the cave, directing remotely. “I was sending materials to my team and they were sending materials back to follow the same steps,” he shared. “The different cave hospitals is the same design because it’s a simple design; it’s not something big, it’s just shelter underground. It was most complicated in eastern Ghouta because they moved the whole city underground because 400,000 people were sieged.”
Complications arose when the Russians bombed the internet satellite that Fayyad and his team were using. “The last three months, we couldn’t have an internet connection between us,” he revealed. “When they displaced the people from eastern Ghouta, when eastern Ghouta was taken by Russians, the people came to northern Syria, where I was filming, so I continued filming with Dr. Amani there and I take the materials, which included the documentation of the chemical attacks.”
More than just shining a light on the brave humanitarians risking their lives to save others, “The Cave,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, also deals with sexism and misogyny. In one scene, a man comes into the hospital and accuses Dr. Amani of not doing her job, telling her that women belong in in the home and should cook. She tells him, “No one tells me what to do.” Fayyad, whose family includes seven sisters and 14 aunts, wanted Dr. Amani to be a feminist inspiration for other women being limited by their gender.
“My sister’s a nurse and another’s a teacher and they were kicked out of work because they were a woman, and I couldn’t do anything for them,” he said. “I couldn’t help in that situation and I feel like this is — I can’t close my eyes on this situation, I have to tell it because [sexism is] obviously everywhere in every single thing.”
In 2018, Dr. Amani was displaced and eventually relocated to Turkey, where she’s since married. She’s not practicing medicine there at the moment, but thanks to “The Cave,” she’s created a fund to support women in the war zone. “[It gives] them support, as well as support nurses and female doctors working in the war zones to empower them and give them more power inside their workspace,” Fayyad shared.
Video by Andrew Merrill
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