Films for Our Times: Syria’s Tragedy Reflected in “The Cave” and “For Sama”

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First in a series, Films for Our Times

What does the great popular art form of modern times — film — have to say to our tumultuous times, the early 21st century? With the weakening of the post-World War II international order — institutional bulwarks failing to protect the individual against the ravages of a globalized economy or armed conflict; democracy’s spread checked by ineffective leadership, resurgent populism and nationalism, and rising authoritarianism — our times as a consequence are marked by extreme polarization, loss of identity, disillusion, anger.

A public so alienated, even in a democracy, can fall prey to the blandishments of the autocrat. In November 2016 the world’s oldest democracy, the United States of America, fell prey to proto-autocrat Donald Trump. Since the turn of the millennium, twenty-five liberal democracies around the world have turned illiberal, with strongman leaders consolidating their power over their governments, disenfranchising their populations, controlling their media.

In the belief that culture as much as politics can juice the recovery of a faltering polity, this series will highlight films, American and foreign, from the vault as well as more recent efforts, that provide that juice. While modern culture — TV, books, drama, film — offers few tools to counter political chaos, emphasizing instead pathology and dysfunction and the dystopian, and while much modern film focuses on the personal to the exclusion of a larger context, still there are gems: Films with protagonists — heroes rather than antiheroes — keenly aware of that larger context and the peril threatening it, who fight their way to what the Roman poet Virgil called “the upper air.”

Anybody who thinks human rights are superfluous, or thinks the rise of autocracy and the weakening of democracy around the world is a benign development, needs to see these two superb documentaries, both set in Syria in hospitals, where the tragedy of war plays out most urgently. While war is always terrible, civil war is more so. Experiencing these two films, this viewer’s overwhelming feeling was: People, most especially children, have a basic human right not to be traumatized by their own countrymen.

Autocrats, unconstrained by ethics, bomb their own people, as has Syria’s autocratic leader, Bashar al-Assad. Since 2012, soon allied with another autocrat, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Assad has bombed his fellow Syrians, even unleashed barrel bombs loaded with toxic chemicals. In both films, the rumble of warplanes overhead and the reverberations of the bombs they drop suffuse the action. Yet humanity at its best shines through.

Documentaries, the nonfiction form of the film art, are especially adept at conveying our troubled times in all its aspects — its horror and humanity. These two films have been nominated for the Oscar for best documentary.

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“THE CAVE” (2019; dir. Feras Fayyad)

This deeply moving film, set in an underground hospital in east Damascus, is all about trying to save the lives of those wounded aboveground. The hospital appears to be set up in the subterranean basement of an existing (but ruined) hospital, thus earning the name “the Cave.” But even at these depths, the Cave shakes from the bombs bursting above.

Directing the operations of the Cave is the extraordinary Dr. Amani Ballour — called Dr. Amani in the film — a 30-year-old woman, thin and impassive. The camera stays with her throughout; we see her examining new victims, deciding their treatment, ordering the staff of 100. We see that, in this chaos, her impassive demeanor is what keeps the Cave from breaking down. A pediatrician, she warms around children, calling them “dear”; the frightened children become visibly calmed in her presence. Her own parents text their fears for her safety and remind her that her plants in her room at home await her, but we see where she is firmly planted.

We see also the patriarchal bias of aboveground life seeping into the Cave, when early on the angry husband of a victim tells Dr. Amani that a woman should be home with her children. A male colleague gently defends Dr. Amani; she swats away the bias and gets back to her life-and-death work, but the bias arises again and again.

Because of the dearth of medical supplies, the surgeon, Dr. Salim Namour, must operate largely without anesthesia. To assuage the patient (and perhaps his own sorrow), he cues up his iPhone to classical music. When he’s not operating, he puffs on a cigarette and calls his family. Providing a lighter note is Samaher, a young nurse pressed into service as staff cook. She good-naturedly hears out their complaints about her “bad rice”; over time, her cooking improves.

But it is the wounded and the suffering who rightfully are the central focus of the film. They are brought to the Cave in unending flows, wave after wave. When the chemical attack occurs, this viewer had to remind herself to breathe. While it appears Dr. Amani and her team save a remarkable number of victims, the ones they cannot save are, understandably, the ones that bring these stalwarts to tears. At one point, the surgeon pulls off his cap and cries, “There’s so little we can do for them!” Dr. Amani finds a room and grieves.

Especially moving is a scene with Dr. Amani and a little girl whose father was killed by a car bomb. Soothing the girl’s tears, she asks about the father and says that she, too, cries. Then she asks the girl if she might become a doctor someday, noting that a doctor does “important” work. The girl agrees, adding a teacher does “important” work, too. So stirring: In Chaos, projecting to the future, imparting to youth that, no matter the Chaos, one must acquit oneself with worthy work.

Its restrictive setting notwithstanding, this film is wonderfully capacious. We see ordinary people doing extraordinary things — medically, humanly. We glimpse the character of the wounded. A political note is sounded as staff takes a moment to inveigh against “the regime,” then turns back to tend the damage wreaked by “that bastard Assad.” There’s also the mundane: Dr. Amani dreams of wearing mascara again. And, properly, a meditative note is sounded throughout; at one point Dr. Amani asks, not rhetorically: “Is God really listening?” She wonders why anyone would bring children into this tragic world.

The filmmaking is fluid and, unlike much contemporary film, does not call attention to itself with baroque editing, other effects. The viewer will cross fingers when the camera crew surfaces outside and risks sudden death. Syrian-born director Feras Fayyad has a deeply humanistic touch. His film “Last Men in Aleppo” earned Syria’s first Oscar nomination. His film about a dissident poet got Fayyad arrested by Assad’s security forces and tortured. Of necessity, he directed “The Cave” remotely.

As Hollywood rains honors on fare like “Joker, the “supervillain origin story” which snagged the most Oscar noms (11) — One must ask: Almost 20 years after 9/11, why is our pop culture stuck in nihilism? — Americans hungering for real courage under fire, fire orchestrated by a real supervillain, will find sustenance in “The Cave.” At film’s end, Dr. Amani’s parents text her they are proud of her; indeed she is a hero, though she’d point to everyone else as heroic. Dr. Amani has been awarded the 2020 Raoul Wallenberg Prize, named for the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis. Finally forced to flee Syria, Dr. Amani is now a refugee in Turkey.

This film is now playing in theatres or can be accessed at Amazon Prime. Trailer here. For an interview with the director on “Amanpour and Company,” see here.

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“FOR SAMA” (2019; dir. Waad al-Kateab)

More a personal statement than “The Cave,” this filmmaker’s target subject is embedded in her title, “For Sama” — her little daughter. Waad al-Kateab films the tragedy of Syria’s civil war from inside the whirlwind, in the city of Aleppo, and does it with child in hand. Al-Kateab, who narrates her film, calls it a “letter to Sama and to all the children of Syria.”

While Dr. Amani in “The Cave” wondered why anyone would bring children into this tragic world, al-Kateab has braved it — an act transforming her from a headstrong young woman into a mother and artist with a mission: to both keep her child alive amidst the horrors of war and to show the world that war. Only when it seems they truly may all die — she, her doctor husband Hamza, and Sama — does she reconsider: “Now I wish I hadn’t given birth to you.” And then she becomes pregnant again.

Like “The Cave,” much of this film takes place in a hospital, with a signal difference: This hospital, which Hamza runs, is not a subterranean cave, but aboveground and dangerously exposed. Added to that, since the hospital needs Hamza 24/7, they live above the store, so to speak. The peril is viscous, the attacks, shattering. With time, while al-Kateab continues to flinch when bombs burst, she notes Sama does not, nor does she cry. She ruminates: Will Sama ever forgive her parents for choosing to stay, not flee? Her guilt compounds when, traveling to Turkey to see Hamza’s sick father, they return to Aleppo — a harrowing journey — when Assad launches another offensive.

Al-Kateab ranges back and forth in time and between the personal and the political. Crucially, she was present, with camera, when the student protests against the Assad regime took shape in 2011 and when the regime’s security forces cracked down, all of which led her to Hamza, one of the few doctors who was also an activist. Unlike “The Cave,” the filmmaker also ranges outside, with her camera and Sama. Especially after a bombardment, witnessing so much death, she needs to see “people alive.” She grows close to a family that likewise has opted to stay. The older boy, asked what he would say to friends who have fled: “May God forgive you for leaving me here alone.” Such is their commitment to their city. Thus the wrenching sorrow when, after six months of siege, they all must evacuate or die.

In the foreground at all times, as in “The Cave,” are the Syrian people, bombed by their own leader, brought to the hospital in extremis. The deaths of children are especially sad: two little brothers mourning a third brother, their mother racing in to bear him away, sobbing. Says a doctor, sorrowfully: “Children have nothing to do with this, nothing.” There are miracles, too: A woman nine months pregnant is brought in unconscious after a bombing. A Caesarean is performed, the baby appears dead, then, after desperate measures to get a response, his eyes open. Life!

Intensity is balanced with lightness. Early on, al-Kateab teases her new husband, “By the way, ever since you said a hospital can’t be bombed, we’ve been bombed constantly.” And when that hospital is bombed to ruins, and Hamza and colleagues are prepping a new location, they playfully begin painting each other’s faces, with al-Kateab laughing, “Is this why you wanted freedom?” One doctor looks straight into the camera and says: “It’s beautiful to have the word freedom painted across my forehead.”

Al-Kateab’s question — “Is this why you wanted freedom?” — will resonate with Americans who fear we have abused beyond repair our own precious gift of freedom. Her dedication — that no matter the world’s destruction, “I keep filming” — is the artistic statement of all serious artists. The film’s end-note says the al-Kateabs and their two daughters now live in the U.K.

Again, in contrast to these two masterpieces, all the honors heaped on Hollywood’s nihilistic “Joker” seem pathetic. How strange: to view two documentaries on the tragedy that is Syria and come away feeling an even deeper bond with humanity. Perhaps that is because, with both these works of art, the through-line is love.

For the full film on PBS’ “Frontline,” see here. Trailer here. For an interview with the director and producer on “Amanpour and Company,” see here.

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