Filmed in Eastern Al Ghouta between 2016 and 2018, The Cave immerses its audience in the unfamiliar, disorienting environment of an underground hospital. For besieged civilians, hope and safety lie underground, where paediatrician and managing physician Dr. Amani Ballour and her female colleagues have claimed their right to work as equals alongside their male counterparts, doing their jobs in a way that would be unthinkable in the oppressively patriarchal culture that exists above.
For its director Feras Fayyad, The Cave is a deeply personal film, rooted in childhood memories and experiences of the humanitarian catastrophe of the Syrian war. Fayyad grew up surrounded by strong women, his mother, seven sisters and four aunts, and had always been disturbed by Syrian society’s view of women as the weaker sex, born to be wives and mothers and inherently inferior to men. One of his most vivid childhood memories is of a terrifying moment in 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds, had threatened a chemical strike against Israel. “Everyone in Syria knew that if he did that, the chemicals would disperse over this country,” Fayyad recalls. “...my mom was smart enough to teach us how to put a piece of cloth around our face and try to breathe through that. As the saying goes, she didn’t give us a fish, she taught us how to fish. The image of her face, so near to my eyes, is embedded in my mind like a close-up.”
After making a film about an exiled Syrian poet, Fayyad was arrested, imprisoned and tortured for 15 months. During that time, the regime detained not only protestors but anyone perceived to be even loosely aligned with their cause. Fayyad witnessed shocking cruelty and misogyny while in prison. “One of the things that you heard all the time was the torture of women and children,” he remembers. “And women would be tortured mostly because they were women. The regime was using women as tools of war, to intimidate and attack its opponents. I came out of prison destroyed, angry. As a male growing up in a family of strong women, this was very personal for me. I felt that someday I had to use my voice as a filmmaker to speak out.”
After his release, while filming Last Men in Aleppo, Fayyad witnessed the military targeting of hospitals for revenge, intimidation and as a way of creating chaos and forcing citizens to flee. Hospitals were demolished. Medics as well as patients were killed. There were no international countermeasures to stop the barbaric attacks. It became impossible for the health sector to exist on the surface, so hospitals moved underground. "I was able to visit a number of them, and it was astonishing to witness the human ingenuity at work. These hospitals became the only hope... and they provided a place where men and women could work together. In fact, these limited underground spaces might be the only places where women can work," says Fayyad.
In August 2013, the Assad government staged a chemical attack on the opposition stronghold of Al Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. Warheads were dropped at 2:30 a.m., choking people as they slept. One of Fayyad’s friends, a filmmaker, was able to capture the scenes in the following days as rescue workers fanned out into the streets filled with the dead and barely living. Fayyad was galvanized by the footage of two female doctors working quickly and decisively. One of them was a young paediatrician, Dr. Amani Ballour.
“It was like something out of a Hollywood movie, where you see heroes running between the bodies and trying to save lives,” Fayyad recalls, “I could picture my mom, my sisters, the women who had been beaten during my time in prison. All their stories came together in this woman, Dr. Amani, who was not just doing her duty as a doctor; she was challenging the stereotypes and prejudices that Syrian society has about women.”
He learned that Dr. Amani worked at the Cave, an underground hospital in Eastern Al Ghouta. The subterranean floors of the Cave were part of a six-story hospital construction that had been left unfinished and stood empty since the start of the Syrian rebellion. When the Assad government began stepping up its attacks on Al Ghouta in 2012, surgeon Dr. Salim Namour had the idea to open the underground portion of building as a safe place to treat patients. After the government laid siege to Al Ghouta in 2013, the Cave became one of the region’s last bastions of life-saving hope.
In The Cave, the characters rarely venture aboveground, for fear of being killed in one of the frequent airstrikes by Russian warplanes. Instead, they spend most of their lives in artificially lit rooms with their cellphones as their primary connection to the outside world. By showing the range of daily experience, from the harrowing to the mundane, the viewer connects with them as individual beings in all their complexity.
Following the women as they contend with daily bombardments, chronic supply shortages and the ever-present threat of chemical attacks, The Cave shows the women in this story as heroes, not as victims. In The Cave, female doctors stand up for themselves, which is something they couldn’t do aboveground in the patriarchal culture surrounding them. "These women are truly an inspiration to me," says Fayyad, "and I believe with this film they will inspire the world as well — contributing to breaking the silence of the outside world."