Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
Denmark/Germany/France/United Kingdom/USA/Qatar/Syria, 2019. Danish Documentary Production, National Geographic, TV2 Danmark, Sudwestrundfunk, Doha Film Institute, Sun Yat-Sen Cultural Foundation, International Media Support, Det Danske Filminstitut, Docs Up Fund, Normandy for Peace, Ma.Ja.De Filmproduktion, Hecat Studio, Madam Films. Screenplay by Alisar Hasan, Feras Fayyad. Cinematography by Mohammad Eyad, Samer Qweder, Muhammad Khamir Al Shami, Ammar Suleiman. Produced by Kirstine Barfod, Sigrid Dyekjaer. Music by Matthew Herbert. Film Editing by Denniz Göl Bertelsen, Per K. Kirkegaard. Academy Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
Faras Fayyad follows his awe-inspiring Last Men In Aleppo with another devastating documentary about the situation in Syria, bravely keeping his cameras close to the heroic doctors who are doing their best to serve the people of the besieged city of Ghouta (just outside of Damascus). With the city surrounded by Russian-supported Syrian military, constantly at the ready to drop a bomb on its innocent civilians, the people of Ghouta have gone underground, creating a series of tunnels and pathways that have come to be known as The Cave. The majority of it is taken up by an underfunded and meagerly stocked hospital run by doctors who have chosen to stay behind to help those in need of medical help, even though in many cases it means being separated from their families who have gone elsewhere to safety. Dr. Amani Ballour, who grew up in Ghouta, is a twenty-nine year-old pediatrician who has been voted the manager of the hospital, and while trying to administer to the needs of the many children who come in injured (or worse) by the frequent bombings that the city is suffering, also has to deal with the objections of patients and their families who don’t like that a woman has been put in charge. Bomb after bomb drops and as soon as one crisis is seen to another springs up, their conditions include having to perform surgeries without anesthetics (they play videos of classical music concerts on their smartphones to lull the patient’s attention away from what is happening instead). While always in danger of being bombed themselves, it eventually becomes impossible to continue on in this place when Assad begins a chemical warfare assault that reaches underground. Fayyad, who was not permitted into the city and directed his cinematographers remotely, gives as much room for the heartbreak (and there is plenty of it) as he does for the lighter moments that lift the doctors’ spirits and keep them going. A birthday party for Dr. Ballour attempts to bring some normality to such an abnormal situation, as do the humorous high spirits of a nurse named Samaher, fighting over the right way to cook everyone’s rice and giving a feeling of hope and humanity at the centre of so much destruction. It’s shot and edited like a Hollywood thriller and some of it feels intentionally manipulative, as if Fayyad was worried that his previous efforts covering the Syrian Civil War were not getting through to an apathetic audience, but the moments that count are the moments that work, namely the power of seeing young people suffering so much needless harm, and the power of the generous and fascinating personalities taking care of them.