Thursday, November 7, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Cave

In advance of and during DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The Cave
Directed by Feras Fayyad
DOC NYC Screenings

Wartime typically leads to a different modality of behavior for those affected. Supplies are rationed based on availability, and those not actively engaged with the military may take on new roles as needed. A conflict extends far beyond those that are directly involved, and it is up to those left on the sidelines to determine what their contributions will be as they remain behind in a dangerous area. These stories of bravery can be truly harrowing, and when a journalist or filmmaker gains access to them as they are occurring, getting the message out that these events are undeniably happening becomes of crucial importance.

The situation in Syria has become so untenable due to constant aerial assaults that the only solution for one group of medical professionals is to establish an underground hospital near Damascus. Dr. Amani Ballour works tirelessly to care for the patients who come her way, pausing to listen for the ominous and deafening sound of warplanes as they approach to deliver more casualties. Despite her clear expertise and skill, Dr. Amani faces challenges to her authority by men who believe that religion has set out a clear path for gender roles, one that has not been altered by the constant barrage of attacks around them.

This film joins “For Sama” as another female-centric look at medical care in present-day Syria, also on DOC NYC’s shortlist. This film manages to capture the terrifying unpredictability of the daily life, with shouts of “Either work or be scared” followed by audibly frightening sounds whose effect is felt even as a viewer hundreds of miles removed from this conflict. A birthday celebration featuring popcorn finds Dr. Amani and other attendees pretending that they are enjoying pizza, an alluring concept unimaginable in their current circumstances. The hopeful illusion is just one method in which they cope with the impossibility of their everyday life.

This is director Feras Fayyad’s second cinematic trip to Syria following his Oscar-nominated feature documentary “Last Men in Aleppo,” and this time feels far more personal and intimate. Dr. Amani doesn’t always radiate confidence or positive energy, consumed by the misery of what she is seeing and her helplessness in being able to put a stop to it or save someone too far gone who didn’t need to die. Fayyad smartly captures conversations rather than direct interviews, allowing the reality of what he is filming to speak volumes and transmit, as much as can be conveyed by a film, the horrors of what is happening in Syria and the incredible work Dr. Amani and her colleagues have done nonetheless.


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