Documentary film “The Cave”, which won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival in last year and recently received an Oscar nomination a few weeks ago, is often difficult to watch to say the least. As closely observing one brave and dedicated doctor and several other equally courageous people trying their best for saving people in the middle of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, the documentary gives us a series of tense, harrowing moments to strike us quite hard, and it eventually works as another vivid presentation of the horror of the Syrian Civil War and the desperate human struggles against that.
The title of the documentary comes from an extensive network of underground tunnels below Eastern Ghouta, a suburban area not so far from Damascus, Syria. As mentioned at the end of the documentary, this area was under siege for around 5 years by the Syrian government army and its allies including the Russian Air Force, and many civilians living this area fled into those underground tunnels for their survival as their neighborhoods were constantly ravaged by air strikes day by day.
While the documentary initially shows a bit of the glum underground environment of these desperate people, it soon moves its focus to a bunch of makeshift hospital staffs trying to help people below and above the ground. Led and managed by Dr. Amani Ballour, they are always busy and alarmed whenever their area is attacked again and then many injured people are hurriedly sent to their hospital, and there are a number of difficult moments where they must be very resourceful as they do not have enough medicine or food. In addition, their hospital has been in the constant danger of being bombed by those Russian bombers, and they and others in the hospital cannot help but become nervous whenever they hear loud sounds from the outside.
Nevertheless, Dr. Ballour and her colleagues keep going as usual. We see some of them busily handling their latest emergency surgery, and the mood becomes a bit more relaxed as the head surgeon has a classic piece of music played in the background. When she comes down into that stuffy underground tunnel at one point, Dr. Ballour tenderly comforts a little girl as spending some time with her, and that is one of the most poignant moments in the documentary.
As we watch more of her work, it is clear to us that Dr. Ballour is a valiant woman quite determined to help many people out there as much as she can, but she is frequently frustrated as facing numerous obstacles from not only outside but also inside. When she tries to explain to a man that her hospital cannot help his wife for not having the medicine his wife needs, the man blatantly expresses his sexist view right in front of her, and that certainly exasperates her, though a male colleague of hers instantly defends her and then points out that she is well-qualified for her job more than anyone else in the hospital.
While often getting quite exhausted, Dr. Ballour does not let herself easily discouraged at all. Although she sometimes receives messages from her concerned parents who sincerely urge her to leave for safety, she cannot simply walk away from her duty, and we come to sense the strong professional bond among her and her colleagues including several women employed by her. In case of a nurse named Samaher, she often complements the more serious attitude of Dr. Ballour via her spirited personality, and one of the few humorous moments in the documentary comes from when she tries to prepare a meal for her colleagues with a relatively small amount of cooking materials.
In the meantime, things continue to get worse outside, and Dr. Ballour and his colleagues find themselves against the wall especially when the Syrian government army begins to use chemical weapons. When it looks like some of their latest patients were exposed to chlorine gas, the situation becomes more urgent and perilous than before, and everyone wears a mask when it seems their hospital is also exposed to chlorine gas, though that will not help them much if their worst fear turns out to be true.
These and other harrowing moments in the documentary are already full of raw emotional power to shake us hard, but I think the documentary goes a little too far as adding an intense score by Matthew Herbert, which is fairly effective on the whole but feels rather intrusive whenever it makes a big dramatic gesture on the soundtrack. Fortunately, that is merely a minor weak point at least, and the documentary still works very well mainly thinks to its undeniable verisimilitude and the palpable humanity generated from Dr. Ballour and her colleagues, who admirably show us how we can show our best sides as struggling under worst circumstances.
In conclusion, “The Cave” deserves to be mentioned along with other recent notable documentaries on the Syrian Civil War including director Feras Fayyad’s previous Oscar-nominated documentary film “Last Men in Aleppo” (2017) and Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s “For Sama” (2019), which was incidentally Oscar-nominated along with “The Cave”. They all urgently remind us of what has been going terribly wrong for many innocent people in Syria, but, considering the ongoing political circumstance around the world, I am really afraid that we will not help them much in the end.