IDFA Review: Feras Fayyad's Extraordinary Documentary 'The Cave'
by Alex Billington
December 1, 2019
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" (–Fred Rogers) The people who give everything to help others when things are bad are the true heroes of this world. By now, most people are familiar with the war in Syria and the atrocities occurring there. Yet it's still important, for the sake of history above all, that we document what's happening in the Middle East and show how regular people are trying to survive. Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad is without a doubt the best Syrian filmmaker working today, and his latest is an extraordinary work of cinema. The Cave is Fayyad's follow-up to his Academy Award-nominated doc film Last Men in Aleppo, and it's an unforgettable, affecting documentary that deserves our time and attention.
The Cave is a documentary made up of footage from various underground hospitals and sites located around some of the most heavily attacked cities in Syria. The focus is on a group of female doctors, lead by Doctor Amani, who work tirelessly in bombed out, barely-working, makeshift hospitals to treat the endless victims of war. The incredibly cinematic footage throughout is observational, yet especially intimate in a way that is harrowing and importantly limitless. There's nothing they won't show, in fact, showing us how horrible it is in Syria is exactly the point - children come in barely alive, and the camera is right there as the doctors do their best to save them. The focus is always on the doctors, as they are the main subject, though it's also raw footage to show us that this is happening here and many outside the Middle East don't seem to care much.
In all honesty, this is exactly what I expected from Fayyad. I was seriously surprised by his Aleppo doc and here he shows that he's more than capable of pulling off that kind of filmmaking brilliance again. So much raw intensity, and the whole film is so immensely cinematic. The shots are so good, almost too good to come from a war zone. I really believe Fayyad has this immaculate understanding of cinema and I think he's just working extra hard to tell these vitally important stories from Syria, that we all need to see and hear anyway, in this seriously compelling documentary way. I adore the score by Matthew Herbert in this one. The film may be a tiny bit manipulative (shocking us into action), but I still am so blown away by his films. And I just want him to keep making more, to keep shaking things up and showing us such remarkable stories like this.
With both The Cave and Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad proves how important his films are in history. They go beyond being just a product of cinema, documenting history as it's happening. They're so harrowing yet hopeful, so chilling and profound, and so beautifully cinematic. The Cave grabs you right from the start and never lets go, pulling you close even if you want to step back. Watching Doctor Amani work is so deeply inspiring, yet any decent person can understand all the emotions she's feeling by looking closely at her eyes throughout. It's a heartbreaking job, but she continues anyway. And these are such important films that will be remembered as incredible examples of how cinema can shine a light in the darkest of places. As someone says to Doctor Amani in the film: in time, the wars will all be forgotten, but you will be remembered forever.
Alex's IDFA 2019 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing