How to film the human toll of war? As technology proliferates and the means to record one’s own experiences are more accessible than ever, each new hostility and crisis of displacement brings with it a deluge of documentaries. It’s perhaps only natural that there has been a move away from the pretense of making the definitive film of any conflict, toward more personal, fly-on-the-wall windows into the lives of those afflicted, given the sheer volume of output. Such films often leave political analysis in the background, but become all the more devastating for it, as we are immersed in the experiences of individuals we are brought to intensely identify with, in their most basic desire for the fundamental conditions of sustained community and security.
Some of the year’s strongest documentaries on the Syrian war are of citizens under siege, each as compelling and heartbreaking as the next in depicting fortitude under desperate conditions. It’s not a case of choosing between them for «the one» to see — each in the very singularity of their protagonists grabs one’s worthwhile attention. Tim Alsiofi shot his short Douma Underground while sheltering in a basement with loved ones from barrel bombs. Waad al-Kateab recorded five years of resistance in For Sama (on which Edward Watts shares directing credit), getting married and giving birth while holding out in Aleppo under constant danger. And, from director Feras Fayyad, following his film on the White Helmets Last Men in Aleppo, there is now The Cave , which shows the daily struggles of a female doctor and hospital manager in rebel-held eastern Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus, as bombardments strike and Russian planes swarm overhead.
Dr. Amani Ballour
If cinema is indeed an empathy machine, coaxing us into a greater understanding of the humans we share the planet with by exposing us to their way of seeing, one would be hard-pressed to find a more sympathetic subject than Dr. Amani Ballour. In her late twenties at the time of filming, she is the manager and lynchpin of a tight-knit team operating a hospital in a subterranean network of tunnels dubbed «the cave». She trained as a pediatrician, and her sensitive affinity with children as she treats and reassures them is touching, but she now dives headfirst with unwavering, level-headed compassion into dealing with anything and everything that comes at the crew as the heavily injured pour in and the 40,000 citizens under siege in the vicinity lucky enough not to be hit, suffer malnourishment on top of the usual ailments. The gritty resourcefulness of the staff as they contend with the ongoing carnage and lack of supplies is humbling, from surgeon Salim cranking up classical music on his iPhone to ease the lack of anaesthetic in the operating room, to nurse Samaher surprising Amani despite the scarcity of food with popcorn for her 30th birthday, which they all have a laugh with pretending that it’s pizza.
Violent conflict threatens all, but other forms of oppression persist, too, under bombs.
In addition to the trauma of dealing with the war-wounded and the threat of airstrikes (the team are on constant edge, jittery at the sound of any plane above), patriarchal bias means Amani’s work can be thankless, with her very right to work called into question, and demands made upon her to justify her obviously high capability. The husband of a woman she’s been treating blames her gender rather than the supply shortage on his wife’s lack of medication, saying she is not cut out to be a manager, despite the fact she has been re-elected by her colleagues, who trust in her guidance. Amani’s father frets over video chat that women are often used as tools in war. Violent conflict threatens all, but other forms of oppression persist, too, under bombs.
«Damn you, Bashar»
The hospital team’s profound humanity amid the suffering is left to speak for itself, the calling to preserve life being so essentially anti-war. Injured are rushed in for treatment in a daily onslaught until one day in 2018 something different occurs: chemical attack. The bone-deep disquiet of the team as they ascertain that this is not a normal assault, as citizens without apparent injuries are struggling to breathe and a smell of chlorine is detectable, shakes one to the core. «Damn you, Bashar,» says Amani, a reference to the Syrian regime that carries a people’s heartache in its simple utterance.
The real choice the film interrogates is not one of political affiliation, but of the near-impossible dilemma of whether to stay or to flee; to hang on and work to maintain life, culture and identity in a city rendered all but inhabitable, with the bare essentials of shelter and sustenance lacking, or to continue the struggle from afar. «Who would have a baby here?» Amani exclaims in total exasperation at the decimation of the city. She persists as long as she can to keep the city alive before evacuation. The director Fayyad, imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime in 2001, now lives in Denmark. Given the inaccessibility of besieged Ghouta, he enlisted three camera people to shoot inside the hospital, with the footage smuggled out — to be edited into a document of the boldest, heartfelt commitment to what Syria once was, for future generations who may yet return to rebuild.
The Cave will screen at FIPADOC and several other festivals.