Oscar nominee Feras Fayyad (Last Men in Aleppo) delivers an unflinching story of the Syrian war with his powerful new documentary, The Cave. For besieged civilians, hope and safety lie underground inside the subterranean hospital known as the Cave, where pediatrician and managing physician Dr. Amani Ballour and her colleagues Samaher and Dr. Alaa 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 ground. Following the women as they contend with daily bombardments, chronic supply shortages, and the ever-present threat of chemical attacks, The Cavepaints a stirring portrait of courage, resilience, and female solidarity. I was honored to sit down with talented director Feras Fayyad to discuss this powerful film just as rash decisions by the U.S. President were making life exponentially worse for Fayyad’s countrymen who were already struggling for their survival.
Danny Miller: This is such a powerful, important film, I hope that it is seen far and wide. Life has obviously been horrendous for Syrians for years and yet much of the world has not been paying that much attention. Now Syria is in the news again for very upsetting reasons having to do with the current U.S. administration. Does it bother you how little most Americans seem to know about what’s going on in your country?
Feras Fayyad: Thank you so much for what you said about the movie and also for this important question. Yes, I think Syria has been an “undercover” story for a very long time. Without the refugee crisis, I sometimes think there would be no coverage whatsoever even if the country burned completely. I do feel as an artist that I have a responsibility to help people see more of what’s going on, to make sure that people learn about the struggle people have over there and the extreme dangers they face every single day. And now the current news is so sad, so scary, so horrible. As a Syrian I keep asking myself how it’s ever going to end and then I wake up and find there is a whole new war happening with the Turkish people coming in. and the Kurds having no choice but to align with Syrian regime and the Russians. There is just endless destruction happening in my country.
And yet your film shows such humanity, such goodness among the Syrians who are so courageously trying to help others amidst such constant turmoil.
It was very important to me to try to bring this story to light, to show all of these extraordinary people who are trying to help their society, change their society, make life possible. The people in this film are working so hard to help their country but they are being systematically hunted down. That’s what I think people here don’t understand, they see all these Syrian refugees and they focus only on what that’s going to mean for other parts of the world, forgetting that these are people who desperately want to stay in their own country. Nobody wants to go leave their home, but in most cases they have no choice, they have to leave or face certain death.
Dr. Amani is such an amazing character. With all the incredible stress they were under with their work in the cave, was it difficult to get her to agree to allow you to film there?
When I approached Dr. Amani, her first reaction was that she didn’t believe that anyone outside of Syria would care about this story. I spent a lot of time convincing her how important it is for people to see what they were all doing there. She eventually agreed that it would be helpful for the outside world to understand what is happening, how so many people were being affected, and how Syrians are trying to help their own. She was still surprised, though, when she realized that she was going to be one of the main characters in the film.
Did you always know that you wanted to have most of the footage in the film come from the Cave and not above ground?
We shot a lot of other footage but in the end I felt that focusing on this underground hospital was the most important story to tell. I didn’t want this film to turn into the classic refugee story, I wanted to show how these brave Syrians were fighting what was going on by providing help to these desperate people inside the country, I wanted to show how this woman was trying to change her society.
I imagine you had enough footage to make three documentaries.
Oh, definitely. We followed Dr. Amani around for hundreds and hundreds of hours, she gave us such incredible access to her life and the work they were doing in the Cave. She trusted how I was going to tell this story and never made any demands on us whatsoever.
I’m guessing that the scene where the guy tells Dr. Amani that she should be home taking care of her husband and kids was not an isolated incident.
Not at all, she heard that many, many times. Amani was the first female hospital manager in the entire history of Syria. There has never been a woman leading a hospital at all, much less in such a serious situation where she was managing over a hundred people who were serving about 400,000 people in such a war-torn area. You have to understand that Syria has been an extremely patriarchal society. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to tell Dr. Amani’s story. All of us Syrians grew up in this patriarchy where we were forced to call Assad our father, his picture was everywhere. It was just embedded in the culture that women should be serving men and not more. Things were starting to change in Syria with the democratic revolutions against the system, and the people in the medical profession were always on the front lines of that.
And then in these makeshift hospitals I assume the situations were so dire that the people had no choice but allow women to assume greater responsibility.
Yes, although Amani was really in a unique situation. She was very inspiring to so many women and she worked very hard to increase the number of women working in the Cave.
With all of the amazing work the people in the Cave were doing, it was so devastating to see it shut down after the chemical attacks in that part of Syria. Who provides medical care to the people in that region now?
It’s all been taken over by the Syrian regime. Dr. Amani is now living in Turkey and is not able to come and go nor is she allowed to practice medicine. I hope that changes for her but she’s basically living the life of a Syrian refugee along with so many others. She is wanted by the Syrian regime and if she goes back now, they would kill her.
That is so horrible. It must be incredibly dangerous for you and your crew to go back and forth into Syria. How do you deal with that?
I was jailed and tortured by the Syrian regime for 18 months, partly because of my other films. While I was there, I witnessed the torture of many women.
So I assume that now you go in and out of the country very secretly?
Yes, there are different ways that I go in to minimize the risks. Getting our footage out was always very dangerous as well. We used WhatsApp to get a lot of it out and smuggled flash drives. It remains a very dangerous situation for everyone. I never stay in the country for more than three days and I never bring in a phone.
What do you hope that people who see your film understand about Syria?
I hope they will begin to understand the situation in my country and put pressure on the politicians to start finding real solutions. Our country has been destroyed by the current regime and from Russian bombing and now what’s happening with Turkey in the north. The number of people who have been killed in Syria, and who are still being killed, is simply unbelievable. And many more just disappear. What will the future of the country be? Right now it’s mostly about death.
Such a nightmare, and it only seems to be getting worse in recent weeks. Do you hold onto a belief in your heart that one day your country will be restored and that many people will be able to return?
That is my wish, of course, but right now I just feel so strongly that I need to make people aware of what’s going on that I am willing to risk my life and my team is willing to risk their lives to document what we can. We hope that once people understand what is happening, and understand some of the history of this part of the world that they will be inspired to work for a better Syria.
Do you worry that this film will put you even more in the crosshairs of the Syrian regime?
I worry most of all for my family members who are still in Syria: my father and my mother and some of my sisters. I have one sister in Lebanon and one in Sweden but I worry every single day about the people I know who are still in the country because of the current regime. I will continue to do this work to remind people how urgent this situation is and that the Syrian people need help.