The Cave is a film not to be missed, centering the superhuman courage and ceaseless work of the dogged doctors who tried to ply their trade in a situation beyond comprehension.
In the context of the Syrian Civil War, Eastern Ghouta has been pivotal. It became rebel-controlled in 2012 and the Syrian government forces have slowly been squeezing the city and its surroundings ever since, working to expunge the insurgent forces and reassert state control. It was in Eastern Ghouta that Bashar al-Assad and his troops deployed chemical weapons in 2014, in the midst of an ever-tightening siege. In journalist accounts in Europe and the US, then, it is Eastern Ghouta that is often at center stage, as it reveals the full depravity of the Assad regime and his allies, and its suffering offers the sharpest appeals for a US- or UN-led humanitarian intervention. In this sense, it is Eastern Ghouta that shines the most unforgiving spotlight on the challenge that the Syrian Civil War presents to the current world order.
It is only fitting, then, that The Cave, the new documentary from Feras Fayyad that details the struggles of a small team of Syrian doctors holed up within besieged Eastern Ghouta, takes the cave as its central metaphor. Caves are a central motif of Eurocentric civilization, dating back at least to Plato and his allegory regarding the emergence of human consciousness. They are part of our humanity, hosting the first human art as well as being the refuge for the earliest members of our species. What is more primordial than a cave? Since Plato, caves are also endemic to the Western self-image and foundational to the political and social structures the West has created and forced upon the rest of the world. Fayyad’s film is, ultimately, a plea to Europe to live up to its own standards and rhetoric, ending with an unambiguous appeal for Europe to allow refugees in. What good is civilization or consciousness if we are watching our fellows die in gas attacks and the Mediterranean?
But The Cave is much more than its message. It is an experience, a fly-on-the-wall point-of-view verité documentary that puts the viewer straight into the daily struggle of the doctors of Eastern Ghouta. They run a subterranean hospital desperately hacked out of the Syrian soil so that the besieged folks of the city can have a reprieve from the aerial bombardment that daily rains death upon the area. This is the literal cave of the film’s title: a cave of modern medical equipment, overworked medical professionals and grievously wounded civilians. The Cave builds, so that its main characters—three doctors and a nurse—grow in the esteem of the audience. In the opening moments, they are brave survivors doing what they can to weather an unimaginable situation to the best of their abilities. By the time the end credits roll, however, these four are undeniable heroes, working tirelessly without medicine or hope for their patients and yet saving the lives of their neighbors through their medical expertise and impossible endurance. The Cave is all the usual cliché adjectives attached to these sorts of films—visceral, riveting and unflinching—but in a genuine, earned way. It is not performative, manipulative or superficial—the bomb-shredded bodies of countless children anchor the images in reality—but rather a deep excavation of the human psyche pressed to its very limit.
The Cave is a film not to be missed, centering the superhuman courage and ceaseless work of the dogged doctors who tried to ply their trade in a situation beyond comprehension. The cave as the metaphor upon which the film forces viewers to make meaning points to the paradox at work in Syria and in the film: nothing is more primitive than cowering in a hole in the ground and praying for deliverance from danger, but look at how advanced the medical equipment, the jet planes and the poison gas are. From caves, we emerged as sentient beings and now back to caves the fruit of our sentience has forced us. Are we no farther along, spiritually- and morally-speaking, than our Paleolithic cousins?