The Cave | Docs/ology

The Cave

Director: Feras Fayyad

Runtime: 107 minutes

Amani Ballour is a lot like any other doctor you’ve encountered — compassionate and motivated with a strong desire to help others in need.

Her environment, though, is antithetical to the comfortable “First World” life in much of the world.

She lives in the war-torn country of Syria. She works inside an underground, makeshift hospital. She treats her patients without anesthesia, and sometimes, without medicine. She wears a constant smile — even though, inside, she is hurting.

And she does it all while battling a patriarchal attitude that tells her she doesn’t belong. After all — as Dr. Amani often hears — she’s a woman.

“Women should stay home, not work,” a visitor to the hospital says. “A woman belongs at home with her husband and children.”

The Oscar-nominated film The Cave, which aired recently on National Geographic, follows Dr. Amani and other heroic women as they assist those who are caught in the middle of the Syrian war. Amani and the team work in a network of tunnels and basement shelters underneath Damascus, a fragile layer of safety from the bombs and air raids that have turned the city into a gloomy pile of rubble above them.

Roughly 400,000 citizens in the area are trapped, with nowhere to go.

“The streets are the battlefields,” the narration tells us. “There is no way out.”

Dr. Amani, a pediatrician and managing physician, wears a smile as she walks through the dimly lit tunnels, knowing the children need a sign of optimism.

We watch as she saves a crying infant who was the victim of a blast, treats an injured young girl with a broken leg, and comforts another child whose father died from a car bomb.

She also assists Dr. Salim Namour with surgeries. In place of anesthesia — they have none — he plays soothing music on a smartphone. The goal is to comfort the patients.

The music may not deaden the pain, but the smartphone nevertheless serves as a conduit to the outside world. During his free time, Dr. Salim watches a video of an energetic maestro conducting a large orchestra. He laughs at and admires the man’s antics. During her downtime, Dr. Amani watches video messages from her parents, who are away from the danger and caring for her flowers. She longs to see them again.

The team often hears bombings on the surface they try to ignore. Every now and then, they climb to daylight to survey the damage. When they grow concerned that the tunnels might be in danger of collapsing from the explosions, they get a bulldozer to fortify the ground with several feet of dirt. 

The Cave is a gripping documentary that both angers and inspires. It’s both heartbreaking and filled with hope.

You’ll walk away hating war from this film — innocent citizens are caught in the middle of the conflict — but you’ll rejoice at the underground army of compassion that has saved thousands of lives that otherwise would have been lost.

The heroes in this battle are the brave women who are also involved in a parallel battle for equal rights in a society that oppresses them. They demonstrate courage and determination in the face of  war, discrimination, and doubt. 

“We will never give up, whatever they do,” one of the women says.

The Cave can’t solve the Syrian war. But it does offer a spark of hope.

Written by Michael Foust