By Chris Cannataro
The cave is not for the faint of heart. But it strikes me to be one of the most important films the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has to offer.
The man I was sitting beside turned to me and asked: “How would you spend two hours in a Syrian basement”?”. I think it was very obvious that neither of us were very well versed with the documentary we were about to watch. But I don’t think anyone in that theatre was completely ready to experience a glimpse of the realities portrayed of war-torn Syria. A glimpse, I must add, that had a comfortable theatre full of Canadian, film-loving adults in tears for most of the 95- minute run time.
The documentary follows Dr. Amani Ballour’s time in Eastern Ghouta, a city bordering Syrian capital Damascus, during the latter part of its siege. Beneath the surface of Eastern Ghouta lies a tunnel system called “The Cave”, which is one of the only active hospitals serving a region of roughly 400 000 people, all trapped in this urban wasteland.
To say the least, The Cave is a difficult watch. By no means is it a bad film – a large part of the film's power comes from how masterfully it was constructed. What makes the film so uncomfortable is getting a perspective so jarringly dissimilar from the one you are used to - while being so masterfully constructed. The film depicts near-constant bombardment mainly from the Russian and Syrian regimes; the anticipation and shock of which are amplified by the incredible sound design of this film. There is incredible discomfort in seeing a montage of the war-torn landscape of Eastern Ghouta scored to Lacrimosa dies Ilia from Mozart’s Requiem. But sometimes discomfort is a necessary part of being able to empathize with those in situations so far removed from your own.
The Cave proves itself to be an incredibly diverse film. Between the moments of emergency lie human moments of doctors having heartwarming calls with their families, who are hopefully reaching out from safer places. We see bonding through food and small makeshift celebration amongst The Cave’s staff, which remind us that circumstance can never stop the human spirit. But there are also moments, such as like when Dr. Amani is told “as a woman she should not be working”, that remind us that circumstance does not wipe away mentalities that contribute to the economic and vocational oppression of Muslim women. Before the film started, director Feras Fayyad mentioned that “there are invisible details” in this film. To me, it is the moments in between where the details lie, and those moments hold a lot to learn from.
When the man I sat beside turned to me and asked “How would you spend two hours in a Syrian basement?” I had no answer. I have no clue what I would do in a Syrian basement for two hours, let alone the five years Dr. Amani Ballour spent in those tunnels. And I think that is where the wealth of intrinsic value of this movie comes from— seeing how War can bring out the worst and best in humanity. Seeing these doctors face the horrific realities of war with such resilience is a remarkably inspiring thing. I have no clue what I would do in a Syrian basement because I have never had to be in a Syrian basement, but there are 25 000 Syrian refugees trying to adapt to Canadian culture who may have something to say about it.
So please, see The Cave. And please support non-profit organizations like Newcomer Kitchen who are trying to help those affected by the conflict in Syria adapt, develop skills, and tell their story. Because all we can really do in these trying times is act.
Editor’s note: This film was originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 19’