Feras Fayyad is the award-winning director behind the new National Geographic documentary “The Cave,” about a female doctor in charge of an underground hospital in Syria. Fayyad was previously nominated for an Oscar for his previous documentary, 2017’s “Last Men in Aleppo.” “The Cave” is currently among 15 documentaries on the shortlist to potentially earn an Oscar nomination.
Fayyad spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Joyce Eng in November to discuss what prompted him to tell this story, the dangerous situations he found himself in, and how the film tackles sexism. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Your film follows Dr. Amani Ballour, who is a pediatrician and the first female hospital manager in Syria and she’s stayed behind to work in this underground hospital called the Cave. So can you talk about how you first heard of her story?
Feras Fayyad: In Syria, they start the Syrian regime targeting intentionally the hospital. That forced the doctors all around the country to move the hospital underground and start literally called hospital, to protect the victims and protect themselves. A huge number of doctors left the country, especially after the first Syrian regime launched the chemical attack that killed in one night 1,500 using the nerve gas and different chemical materials. One of the few doctors left was Dr. Amani and everyone started to hear about her and she was working undercover and she left her family behind and left everything behind her and stayed in that place. The doctors in that area, which is called Eastern Ghouta, outside of Damascus, the capital of Syria, around five, 10 kilometers from the center of Damascus, I was already starting documentation, the civil demonstration in Syria in 2011 and being jailed by the Syrian regime first time and tortured and then I get out of the prison and again I start to continue working and then I’m jailed again. I’m captured, I’m jailed again, I get out, and then I start to document the event of the chemical attacks where I started to see the doctors, including Dr. Amani. We discovered through the process that she was the first Syrian to lead a hospital in the entire recorded history of Syria. In Syria was a dictatorship regime which was a country leading by two presidents, the father and the son, the last 100 years, faking their elections, winning 100% of the countries, killing voices against them, closing the country from any voices to come out of that. The revolution in Syria came with different voices and people started to see each other and get to know each other and that made them shocked from each other and their opinions. We knew that Dr. Amani starting to do this feminist movement, bringing a lot of women in power inside the hospital and giving them space to work and to be themselves and to have identity to spread from their family if they want and this hospital turned out to be like an identity for them more than anything. This is many things inside one story and we naturally documented on this. We weren’t expecting that we will add this footage in film. Naturally, we started to feel like we have to document this, good work for many things, evidence for war crimes, documented for history what’s happening, to tell it for the next generation of Syria, a close look to what’s happening in our countries in that moment.
GD: What were the logistics of filming in a war-ravaged country like that? You were able to go into the Cave, right? How did that all happen with the filming inside the Cave?
FF: As I said, in 2013, I started documenting. The Cave wasn’t that huge and big, it was just a small medical point and I started documenting by myself and then I couldn’t continue because I was already jailed, captured, kidnapped by the Syrian regime. So I left to Northern Syria. Northern Syria is a complete copy-paste from what’s happening in Eastern Ghouta. There is also a different Cave hospital. I established a team of three cinematographers who would start documenting and I was documenting in the same Northern Syria, the same situation following different doctors also. We didn’t know what we were gonna do, but we were like, “This is a mission, we have to deal with that.” During that, I was doing “Last Men in Aleppo.” The material of “The Cave” was started before “Last Men in Aleppo” but we couldn’t get it out because Dr. Amani and her team were undercover and it was mostly the few doctors who left behind and the Russians, the Syria regime and different terrorist groups, they were targeting doctors. They wanted to kill them because they wanted to cut any resources for the lives there. So I was documenting in Aleppo and Idlib, which is in Northern Syria and sending the materials to my team there and they send me the material back to follow in the same step with that. Different Cave hospital is same design because it’s a simple design. It’s not like something big. It’s just shelter underground and they tried to extend it. The doctor managed to build a beacon in that space for the people. What’s most complicated more in Eastern Ghouta, they move the whole city underground. There was 400,000 sieged completely who can’t get in, any you can’t get out. There’s no resources for food, electricity was through generation through the sun, this area was rich with water and with green planets and the people was using this material. Mostly we didn’t have big equipment. It was 5D Mark II and 60D camera and there wasn’t access for batteries to charge the cameras but the small equipment helped us so much to capture the moment. It was hard for my cinematographer to move back and into the Cave because they had not to stay there in this place because it’s just for victims, doctors and they have to deal with a lot of regress also in this situation. In my side in Northern Syria, I had to move place to place every three days because I can’t stay in that place because I will be kidnapped or be killed. People know me. I have a Syrian Kurdish mother. A little bit there is sensitive situations about the Kurds and Arab inside Syria that rise more dangerous and threat on that, especially if they know that the footage is about documenting war crimes and about doing something that could expose the situation right there. They don’t wanna also put the area where I’m staying ‘cause normally, I have a friend who was making an investigative story about chemical attacks and the Syrian regime bombed his family with a warplane and killed his mother and sister, just for making an investigate story. It was so scary in these situations in dealing with the material, and the material was being uploaded through internet satellite to my side and I do the same thing, until the Russians bombed the internet satellite. How we know that’s Russian? Because the conversation through walkie-talkie between the Russian pilot about bombing the place. The conversations between the pilot and the Arabic and the Russians and the tracking, there is radio-tracking for the pilot was about this documentation that we collected in this way, could be a different way to put this as evidence for what’s going on in the country. Anyway, the last three months we couldn’t have connections between us.
GD: No internet, so how did you get the files?
FF: What’s called evacuations, when they first displaced the people from Eastern Ghouta when the Eastern Ghouta taken by Russians, the people came to Northern Syria to where I was filming, so I continue filming with Dr. Amani there and they take the materials, which was including the documentation for chemical attacks.
GD: Yeah, that’s in the movie.
FF: Yes, exactly. The chemical attacks, behind Britain, France, and United States launch and attack that day on Syria, when Donald Trump was joking about the cake in that day of people was dying from the chemical attacks. I put the materials on flash because it was also scary because Turkey and Russia, they have conversations and what’s scary about this is material…
GD: Of the chemical attack.
FF: Yes, exactly, it’s showing you there is war crime and the people behind it, it’s very clear about it. I smuggled them from Syria to Turkey, then from Turkey to Denmark.
GD: Wow. And that’s where you finished the film?
FF: This is where I was editing the film, yeah.
GD: The film also deals with sexism and misogyny ‘cause this husband of a patient comes in and accuses Dr. Amani of not doing her job, and he says, “Women should be home and cook.” And a male coworker has to come in and say that the staff voted for Dr. Amani to be the manager, and she’s like, “No one tells me what to do,” which was awesome. So, how important was it for you to not just show her saving the lives but to be an inspiration to other women who may be from patriarchal societies?
FF: She was an inspiration for other women, which is morally conflicted in that situation. A man who is suffering, doesn’t have any medicine and he’s angry and he’s a victim himself but he was blackmailing her and using his victim-ism against her, and this can compare with many situations around the world, victim on victims. I can size it in this way. Dr. Amani, she was active, she was very strong. She’s a gifted person. She would decide about what she wants to be and left behind her family. She was from a wellbeing family and she didn’t need to do anything. Her family opened a good clinic in the city and she can work but she wanted to do this. She went and left everything and she wanted to do this. She wanted to stand next to the victims and during that, she was trying to get more women to work. She was aware enough in this way, growing up, seeing in front of her the injustice situation for women. This was a most important thing. In the middle of that, the change should be in every single place.
GD: I don’t think it’s a spoiler but at the end of the movie, Dr. Amani leaves. Do you know where she is now, what she’s up to?
FF: Dr. Amani now, after she came to Northern Syria, I shot with her 500 hours also. We already shot 500 hours in Eastern Ghouta and then in Northern Syria, 500 hours. Northern Syria, to get a lot of people there is a lot in our country, there is Turkish, there is Russians, there is Saudi Arabia, there is Qatar, there’s so many countries inside that country, terrorist groups, there is bombs. It’s open and dangerous and there are three million people sieged in that area. There’s a huge refugee camp for the people who have been displaced from other cities in Syria, being destroyed by the war from Raqqa, from homes and other cities. All of them, they end in refugee camps that if you look, you don’t see the end of that refugee camp. So, refugee camp after she couldn’t find work again in a good place as she wanted, because she decided that I have to do this and I have to do this and I have to bring women with me. I was following her and she left to Turkey. She met a nice man and they married and are living in a small apartment in Turkey close to the Syrian border. Unfortunately, she’s not allowed to practice her work as well, so through making this film, she managed to establish a fund called Al Amal, to support women leaders in war zones and search about them, give them support as well as support nurses and female doctors working in the war zone to secure their life, to empower them and give them more power inside their workspace.