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Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad tells the story of an underground field hospital in the province of Ghouta in The Cave.

National Geographic / Courtesy of Mongrel Media

  • The Cave
  • Directed by Feras Fayyad
  • Starring Amani Ballour
  • Classification: R
  • 95 minutes

rating

The idea to move an emergency room underground was simple, according to the diaries of a young, female Syrian pediatrician: “As simple as the death lurking on the surface.”

Those are the words of Dr. Amani Ballour, the subject of an artful, poised and intimate documentary about the civil war in Syria and a subterranean hospital in a bombed-out and besieged area on the outskirts of Damascus. As if the conditions aren’t dire enough – the soothing sounds of Prokofiev, Mozart and Tchaikovsky are a substitute for sedatives and anesthesia – Ballour faces intense sexism. “Women should stay at home, not work,” she is told by a man seeking medicine (of which there is barely any at all).

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The film is directed by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad, whose Oscar-nominated Last Men in Aleppo focused on search-and-rescue specialists who work in the city’s rubble. Because Fayyad was unable to safely enter the area to shoot The Cave, he hired three local cinematographers to capture the heartbreaking drama and camaraderie of the medical team.

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Their upbeat morale is striking – one half expects to see a “hang in there, it’s almost Friday” poster on the wall. A subtext of the film is a focus on classical music, as if to ask how humans can be capable of both intense beauty and ruthless inhumanity. Fayyad overdoes it a bit with his string-laden soundtrack. One scene uses horror-film music, while the end-credits song – with its refrain of “make it stop" – is cloying.

It’s no surprise the film won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

The Cave opens on Nov. 1 in Toronto, with other Canadian cities to follow.

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