Intimately shot against the backdrop of Syria’s devastating civil war, Feras Feyyad’s The Cave introduces its audience to a team of health workers, led by the brave and bold Dr. Amani Ballor, that is treating victims of the war in an underground hospital in Ghouta, just outside the city of Damascus.
Fayyad followed Ballor and her work as the hospital manager, aptly highlighting not only the obstacles her team had to overcome in a war-torn country with limited resources and access, but also the blatant sexism she faces as she battles the gender norms imposed on her.
Fayyad's last documentary, Last Men in Aleppo, was nominated for an Oscar and followed the search-and-rescue missions of the White Helmets in Syria.
From Syria himself, Fayyad was once captured, held captive, and tortured for a year while filming a project, accused of being a spy, punished for his intent to spread information outside of his native land — but he has remained determined to tell important stories like Ballor’s.
Global Citizen caught up with Fayyad to talk about The Cave, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 5, in the context of gender, health, and the importance of the human connection.
Global Citizen: Since the premiere, have you had a lot of people talk to you about how they were personally affected by the war in Syria?
Feras Fayyad: Actually, more than that. What I found [is] that people, they find a personal connection to the film. For example, two nurses came to me and said, “You know, this film makes us think again — Canadian nurses — think again about how we've been treated in our work and our workspace … It's personal things ... It’s those moments [that] make it like super personal, that this film, it's not just … about the Syrian conflict, but the people ...
[While watching the film], we feel like we are in the shoes of the character. We feel that now we are witnessing … the war crimes and we have a responsibility; we have to do something. We have to change something. We have to make something.
With The Cave, you managed to not only show the destruction caused by war, but you did so in a sort of unique way, highlighting this incredible team of doctors working underground, tending to patients with war wounds. How did you come to find The Cave and meet Dr. Amani and the others?
I can tell you it has been a long-term [process] and it came from personal perspective of where I grew up … I grew up [with] very strong female family ... [My mom] taught me so many things ...
As well, I’ve been shaped as a person through seven sisters. I was the only boy, I was a minority, growing up with women ... And it’s a big female family, it’s like eight sisters of my mother’s and four sisters of my father’s — it’s a female family. I’m really proud about this, how we grew up.
And then I was jailed at the beginning of the revolution in Syria by the Syrian regime because I was making films. I was, you know, just like a person who wanted to make a cinema and [I had] these lowly tools in my hand to make change, to do something for what's going on around me. So, I was trying to film something in the beginning of the revolution in Syria. Then, I was captured, caught by the Supreme Court by the Syrian regime and tortured. But I had been witnessing the torture against women just because they're women, and the unjust situation around me for the women.
[After I managed to survive the prison, I thought] I'm lucky … to be here and to tell those stories for the world.
What was it like following Dr. Amani?
She’s a different person, unique. She's not just trying to save lives, but also change society. She has a powerful ward and … powerful thoughts, and she pushed the respect around her … She cares about how she can make a change in the people that she saved. And you can see that, in the film, that Dr. Amani and her team, the females, they try to communicate ... [They’re] not just doing the work and saving a life … There's a conversation ... and a level of identity [with the girls that come in] ... They give them the space.
Like a moment where ... [Dr. Amani] told [a girl's brother], “Stop talking, let your sister talk.” This shapes [a new] behavior, that [as] a man you [have] a responsibility to give a space for those girls, and [it will] shape the behavior of society ... [The girl] was shocked when [Dr. Amani] told her brother "Stop talking" … She felt like she had a space and she started to talk.
That's so subtle, I don't think I noticed it initially — but I know exactly the part that you're talking about. That's kind of the perfect example of how Dr. Amani was creating change.
She was a very interesting person … She tried to deal with the situation in a different way, and this is more political … that shows you that the woman way of leading things is so different from the men … And we have to think about this way. Maybe this is the way that will save our world? ...
Amani, she was like somebody [that] shaped herself on her best and on how she wanted to be, and this is what’s inspiring … That you can change so many people and she changed … she gave a space for women to work in the hospital, where men think ... [women shouldn’t work]. Because this is the thing that … we’re used to — and she came to say different things.
With his last documentary, Last Men in Aleppo, as well as with The Cave, Fayyad has successfully managed to highlight some very human elements of the war in Syria, rather than focusing on the destruction of physical infrastructure or war timelines.
He says that the films are not just about drawing attention to Syria, but showcasing people who bring hope and make the world a better place — people like Dr. Amani, volunteers like the White Helmets, and, in his next film, lawyers seeking justice.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.