The Cave will shake you to the core

A documentary
Directed by Feras Fayyad

This fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Syrian war left me shaken and disturbed. That’s appropriate. You shouldn’t be able to watch screaming, terrified children and exhausted and hopeless adults, while death and destruction rains down overhead, and not be moved. The fact that it’s real makes it all more terrifying.

If this film has a flaw, it’s that it is just too much to bear. At some point, your ability to watch suffering may shut down. We have the option to do that. The doctors, nurses, and other volunteers working feverously in this badly equipped, underground hospital don’t have that option. If they turn away, someone will die.

For years, the Assad and Putin regimes turned their massive and modern weaponry on the city of Eastern Al Ghouta. By the time the filmmakers arrived, the city was little more than a wreck. And yet the government was destroying what was left.

Luckily, this very serious documentary has a heroine, the surprisingly young Dr. Amani Ballour (she turned 30 while the film was being made). Running the collapsing hospital while focusing on the children (she was trained as a pediatrician), she fights her exhaustion and fear constantly day and night.

Aside from saving lives, she must deal with shortages of food and supplies, a father who begs her to come home, and arguments within her staff. Not surprisingly, she also must deal with male chauvinism. When she must tell an outraged father that they don’t have the drugs his child needs, he responds by lecturing her on how men should run hospitals.

Judging from the film, Dr. Ballour has an exceptional bedside manner. She’s affectionate and plays with the wounded or starving kids. She hides her own fears very well when she must.

Keep in mind that this hospital is entirely underground. Occasionally Dr. Ballour goes up to the surface to see how things look. It’s dangerous, but isn’t everything? A direct hit on the hospital would kill them all. And poison gas – a favorite of Assad’s – can seep into the underground air.

The small hospital staff, who we get to know very well, find some little enjoyment for themselves and their mostly young patients. There’s a birthday party. People joke around. And western classical music plays whenever possible – usually from a smartphone. In one heartwarming scene, Dr. Ballour confides that she wants to be more feminine and wear mascara.

Surprisingly, electricity and the Internet still work most of the time. The film never explains this. I would assume that if you’re besieging a city, the first thing you’d do is cut the power and the connection to the rest of the world.

This must have been an extremely strange and difficult shoot. Director Fayyad could not enter the sieged city, and he had to pull together a local team from afar. The credits mention several filmmakers that died while making the film.

I don’t think you can see The Cave without it changing you. The Cave opens Friday at the Opera House.