“One of the most necessary films of the year”


The Cave, a harrowing true story of an underground Syrian hospital and the female doctor running it, kicks off National Geographic’s Women of Impact initiative.

Over the past eight years, the war in Syria has spread death, destruction and horror across the country, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and displacing millions. In besieged Eastern Al Ghouta, incessant bombardment has turned the landscape into an eerie wasteland dotted with bombed-out buildings and piles of rubble. Going outside is a life-threatening proposition, but residential neighbourhoods are targeted as indiscriminately as markets, schools and other places. Hospitals, medical centres and ambulances are also fair game for the Assad government and its Russian allies.

Safety and hope lie underground, where a brave group of doctors and nurses have established a subterranean hospital called the Cave. In a conservative patriarchal society that devalues women, the Cave is run by young female paediatrician Dr. Amani Ballour, who is frequently subject to hostility from men who refuse to see her as a capable physician. But Dr. Amani doesn’t back down, and inside the Cave, women have reclaimed their right to work as equals alongside their male counterparts. They risk their lives to save their patients and find ways to persevere in a world of cruelty, injustice and suffering. For Dr. Amani and her colleagues Samaher and Dr. Alaa, their battle is not only to survive but to maintain their dreams and hopes for their country and for women.

On Sunday, 8 March, DStv customers will be immersed into the harrowing true story of this underground hospital and the female doctor running it when Oscar-nominated documentary feature The Cave premieres on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00. The feature, which kicks off National Geographic’s Women of Impact initiative, unveils the unflinching story of the Syrian Civil War, while simultaneously painting a stirring portrait of courage, resilience and female solidarity. Viewers will watch as Dr. Amani and her colleagues contend with daily bombardments, chronic supply shortages and the ever-present threat of chemical attacks in war-torn Syria to save their patients and find ways to persevere in a world of cruelty, injustice and suffering.

Set a reminder

“The Cave is one of the most necessary films of the year. As events unfold in the news, it is also perhaps the most timely”

The Daily Beast

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Peeling back the curtain

The war in Syria has been raging on for over eight years – and Dr. Amani and her colleagues spent five years in the Cave assisting trying to save victims. “I am pleased that this documentary raised awareness about the truth of what is happening in Syria, however I think it’s important to remember that the war is still ongoing. Millions of people are fighting for their lives and we need international intervention to put a stop to it,” Dr Amani says.

Speaking exclusively to DStv.co.za, Dr. Amani says she did not expect to stay as long as she did, but she and her colleagues recognised the need and were determined to do all they could to assist. “We thought someone would come to help us and our people, but no one ever did. So we stayed for years to try to help as many people as we could.”

“It was a very difficult environment to live in,” she says. “The area was under siege. People were starving for food and medicine. Thousands of people died every day,” she says.


"Emotionally Moving...extraordinary visual grace...both intensely real and a carefully wrought work of cinema”

The Hollywood Reporter

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Going underground

In August 2013, the Assad government staged a chemical attack on the the opposition stronghold of Al Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. Warheads were dropped at 02:30, choking people as they slept. One of The Cave Director Feras Fayyad’s friends, a filmmaker, was able to capture the scene in the following days as rescue workers fanned out into the streets filled with the dead and barely living. Fayyad was galvanised by the footage of two female doctors working quickly and decisively. One of them was Dr. Amani Ballour.

“It was like something out of a Hollywood movie, where you see heroes running between the bodies and trying to save lives,” Fayyad recalls. “I could picture my mum, my sisters, the women who had been beaten during my time in prison. All their stories came together in this woman, Dr. Amani, who was not just doing her duty as a doctor; she was challenging the stereotypes and prejudices that Syrian society has about women.”

He learned that Dr. Amani worked at the Cave, an underground hospital in Eastern Al Ghouta. The subterranean floors of the Cave were part of a six-story hospital construction that had been left unfinished and had stood empty since the start of the Syrian rebellion. When the Assad government began stepping up its attacks on Al Ghouta in 2012, surgeon Dr. Salim Namour had the idea to open the underground portion of the building as a safe place to treat patients. Dr. Amani began working at the Cave soon after it opened and was instrumental in building out the hospital’s underground levels. The area was divided into rooms, including a paediatric clinic, women’s clinic, operating room and recovery room, as well as a large central emergency receiving area. After the government laid siege to Al Ghouta in 2013, the Cave became one of the region’s last bastions of life-saving hope.

By early 2016, Fayyad had begun exploring the possibility of making a film about underground spaces in Syria and was hoping to include the Cave. Initially, Fayyad spoke to Dr. Amani simply about the idea of filming in the Cave. However, once Dr. Amani was elected managing director of the hospital, the calculus changed. It wasn’t only that he needed her consent as a supervisor; he would need to film her doing the complicated, demanding job that was essential to the Cave’s survival.

“Feras told me that he saw the women in this story as heroes, not as victims. He wanted to show women in a state of action, saving lives,” says Dr. Amani. “He wanted to bring the world’s attention to the cruelty of misogyny. We talked about the importance of the idea of truth, and how that connected to my job as a doctor. Because I was so close to the victims, I was a witness to war crimes. I believe in the power of media and I wanted the truth to be known.”

Her agreement came with one film stipulation, according to Fayyad. “She said, ‘I have a responsibility to keep saving lives, so please be careful when you film with me. Be careful not to distract me from my work.’”


"A moving, beautifully humanistic story whose inevitable hardships are laced with real hope and levity”

Entertainment Weekly

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Crossing borders and boundaries

At just 32 years old, Dr. Amani was the first woman ever to manage a hospital in Syria. In fact, Syrian men are 90% more likely to attain managerial positions than their female counterparts, where only 12% of the workforce is female.

“I have been prevented from doing many things just because I am a woman,” Dr. Amani tells DStv.co.za. “Women all over the world are suffering at the hands of misogyny – young girls are being taught that they are not as important as man are. By participating in this documentary, I wanted to inspire women to change that situation. I want them to know that they can do everything they want to do, and that they have to make the change themselves – they cannot wait for anyone else to make the change for them.”

At the same time, it hasn’t been easy to relive the hellish realty of life in war-torn Syria. She is still afraid of loud noises – The crack of thunder; a plane streaming overhead; a knock on the door. The sounds remind her of the fighter jets and ferocious shelling that forced her to reluctantly flee her native Syria in 2018. But she was determined to tell the truth for the people of Syria and expose what is really happening in the country.

“Since this film’s release, people have said that they now know the truth about what is happening in Syria. They are asking how they can help – and that was the entire goal of the film, was to ask people to help,” she says.


"Miraculous...A standout. Feras Fayyad’s powerful portrait audaciously puts women’s imperative contribution to survival front and center"

Variety

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A call for action

The subterranean hospital is gone, but The Cave exists as a record of the extraordinary haven that a brave group of doctors — women and men — built beneath the earth’s surface.

Since premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on 5 September, 2019, The Cave has won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries and was also nominated for the Best Documentary Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards.

“This film has started a very important conversation among millions of people around the world – but now we need to act,” Dr. Amani says. “By putting pressure on governments to get involved, and by donating food, clothes and medical supplies to the people of Syria, every one of us can become a leader and contribute to the change we want to see in the world.”

Today, Dr. Amani works with a European foundation aimed at empowering women in conflict zones and encouraging women and children to become leaders. She spends her days meeting with governments in developed countries to assist with the war in Syria, requesting humanitarian assistance and putting pressure on decision-makers to inspire change.

Asked about her hopes for The Cave, Dr. Amani is characteristically direct. “I want this film to be a step on the way towards justice; maybe we’ll achieve justice one day. I want to tell the younger generation of Syrians, the children of Syrians, the truth of what happened here. And I especially want the women in my country to know that they are strong. They can challenge the restrictions; they can do what they want to do. I tried to say to all the women that I saw, all the time, ‘Don’t care about the society, about what people will say about you. You have to do what you love. Just believe in yourself.’ One day, things will change. Society will change.”


The Cave premieres 8 March on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00.

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