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'The Cave' Spotlights Women on the Syrian Warfront

By Valentina Valentini

From Feras Fayyad's 'The Cave.' Courtesy of National Geographic

Syrian documentary filmmaker Feras Fayyad has been battling his whole professional life. First, he was battling to keep his family safe (he's still fighting for this today) amidst the growing unrest in Syria, then he was battling to get his voice heard as a filmmaker in a dictatorial regime. He battled through torture, through seeking refuge in Europe, through continuing to make his films and continuing to be persecuted in his homeland because of them. He continues his battle with the American government as they keep trying to reject his Visa applications as he follows his latest film, The Cave, around to all the awards, including the IDA Documentary Awards, for which he and Alisar Hasan won for Best Writing, and, of course, the Academy Awards, for which the film is nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category. But it's not just him these restrictions are affecting. Fayyad, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated director of Last Men in Aleppo, is always quick to point out others suffering as well. In fact, it's what makes him the compassionate documentarian that he is.

"All the support I've been receiving from [the industry] I think that will show the opposite narrative of what [the government is doing]," says Fayyad over the phone from Los Angeles, after he was finally granted permission to visit for the awards season. "I need to focus on this, and with this support maybe the film will be seen more."

What makes Fayyad most proud of The Cave is that it is fully a Syrian narrative, which profiles Amani Ballour, a female doctor in Ghouta who is operating a makeshift hospital in a cave during the Syrian Civil War. When watching The White Helmets or Of Fathers and Sons or City of Ghosts, viewers might not realize how hard it is for a Syrian to make a film without Western/white directors or co-directors—what Fayyad calls "comfortable cultures"—who might want to push their own narratives.

"Even with Last Men in Aleppo," he says, "it wasn’t easy to be an artist telling your own narrative because there's always somebody there to push a different narrative. The great thing about this film is that it has been shot by Syrians, directed by a Syrian, co-written by a female Syrian and the final cut belongs to me. And I'm proud about that. This is the first time there are award nominations for a Syrian creative team with control and ownership of the final cut. That’s a really big change."

Documentary spoke with Fayyad as he readied himself for the Oscars about why he continues to make films about his homeland, how he first came across Dr. Ballour, and why a film about women in Syria is so important to him.

DOCUMENTARY: There have been quite a few documentaries about the plight in Syria. For you as a filmmaker, what keeps you driving to keep making the films when it seems nothing changes?

FERAS FAYYAD: My career as a filmmaker started before the war in Syria. And by the way, in our language, we call it a "revolution." This is important for me to call it a revolution because it began peacefully. When the revolution started, for me as a filmmaker it was believing in freedom of expression, freedom of speech. Telling the story for the love for the truth, for love for your country—this is where the motivation comes from. I dedicated my life to tell stories of Syria, to bring different narratives than the stereotyping in front and behind the camera. I want the audience to be as close as they can to Syrian people, as close as they can to how we are feeling towards what’s happening around us and how we look at the world around us. This is important.

The focus of The Cave is to tell a personal story about women in my country who are trying to make change. Dr. Amani is the inspiration for generations of women living in this country who are victimized, who can't have their voices heard. She is a special person in her story, and I couldn't separate the narrative of the war in Syria with the narrative of what women face today in Syria. I felt these two stories should be put into the film, even when it's hard to put two dramatic stories into one.

Feras Fayyad. Courtesy of National Geographic

D: Did you go into this documentary knowing it would be about the oppression of women in the country as much as it is about the revolution?

FF: I had the idea of a documentary with the subject of women before Last Men in Aleppo. The inspiration came from when I was in prison and I saw women being tortured just because they were women. But they'd never present themselves as victims. They, like my mother and my sisters, try never to give up. When I was documenting the attacks on the hospitals, I started to notice the women working there. One of my sisters was working as a nurse in this hospital and had been pushed out of her job because she was a woman. We had two teams that began documenting the bombings on the hospitals, one of which was my cinematographer in Eastern Ghouta in the hospital where Dr. Amani worked. When I saw his footage, I knew right away that I wanted to tell the story of one hospital and the experience of one woman with her work. The fact is, Dr. Amani is the only woman running a hospital in Syria. In my research of the history of Syrian hospitals, there has never been a woman director, so I knew absolutely this is an important story that I have to tell. Dr. Amani wasn’t aware at the time that she’d be the main subject of the film, nor did the cinematographers realize their footage would be the main footage of the film.

D: How does Dr. Amani, as well as the cinematographers, feel about it now?

FF: I showed the film for Dr. Amani first, even before the cinematographers. I left her alone in a room with my producer to view. When they finished the screening, she called me back and said, "This is a film about me! Why are you doing a film about me? There are a lot of people, a lot of doctors." She was so humble. We had a lot of conversations after that. We had to consider the privacy of the hospital and Dr. Amani's privacy. There was so much personal information about her and we didn’t know if it would be safe to reveal it and how much danger that would bring to her. However, she did love the film. She loved that it empowered the woman and that I'd included the stories of women for fighting for their identity.


The Cave screens as part of IDA's DocuDay LA, February 8 at 4:55 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. Feras Fayyad, Producers Sigrid Dyekjær and Kirstine Barfod, as well as Dr. Amani Ballour will participate in a post-screening discussion. Click here for tickets.

Valentina Valentini is a writer traveling the world in search of her next story. She covers entertainment, travel, food, culture and people for Vanity Fair, BBC Travel, Variety and many more. Follow her adventure at @valentina_writes.