PG-13. It's heart-wrenching, so don't let the PG-13 MPAA rating fool you. Out of all of the Syrian occupation movies, this one is probably the most sensitive towards graphic violence. But that doesn't mean that it is still not extremely upsetting. This is footage of real human suffering. There is blood. A lot of people die over the course of the film. It is really upsetting stuff, so please take that into account before deciding to watch this. But like I mentioned with all of the Aleppo documentaries, you almost have a responsibility to watch this. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Feras Fayyad
I have seen so many of these that it is a miracle that I can even write about them anymore. I also really want to backtrack my first sentence and stress that I deserve absolutely zero sympathy for my absolutely cushy existence. Life is very good to me and the fact that I can sit on a couch and watch movies about people who have it far worse than me is a very strange position to be in. It's just that I now have seen so much that I can now watch these movies critically. I have favorite Aleppo documentaries. That's a weird thing to say. While The Cave is not technically about Aleppo, it is about the siege on Syria and it is horrifying to think what it must be like to be Syrian over the past five years.
The Cave, as a film, is an odd beast. It has a lot of responsibility on its shoulders. While I've written about the siege on Syria in a lot of my film blogs, I know that many people don't know the horrors of what is / was going on over there. The Cave understands that it has a duty to let people know about the emotional and physical damage of what is going on there. Like its peers, The Cave stresses the violence that is happening to the civilian population of Syria. As such, the core of the movie is like other documentaries about similar subjects. It takes people in a place of care and support and focuses on how they can help more and more people, despite the sheer violence constantly surrounding them. This means that we do see absolutely terrifying things happening to real people, often children. These movies have made the concept of blood contrasted against white-washed children commonplace for me. I get that, because the nature of bombing is so impersonal, that a bomb victim looks the same and it is always haunting. The movie begs you to have hope for every victim that comes into that hospital and will reward that hope with success; but it will also severely punish that same hope when things begin to fail. It is the way of war and it is the core of the wartime documentary.
But The Cave offers something else that many of the other documentaries do not. The Cave is the first of these documentaries that is focused on the female gaze. Dr. Amani is a woman, a young woman at that, in a world where the patriarchy does not let her do her job in the best of environments. I know, the idea of the patriarchy ruining things isn't exactly a new idea. However, The Cave stresses the idea that the patriarchy and sexism is so prevalent in parts of the world that people would rather die than allow a woman to truly help. Dr. Amani is the same age as my sister-in-law. I know that phrase means nothing to people who do not know me. I'm 36. I still think of Julie as a young adult. I suppose she is. She lives at home and works in a hospital as a resident. Dr. Amani isn't a resident. She's the head of this hospital. This isn't exactly a point of pride for her. This wasn't an aggressive climb to the top for notoriety and promotion. Instead, she has a job that no one else wants and that no one else can do as well as her. The hospital that she runs in Syria is probably the greatest bastion against war that the residents have, yet she has to convince men to receive basic help. Her hospital is attached to a series of caves that allow people to stay out of blast zones. It connects to places all over the city and still, she has to move past basic sexism to let her do her job. Listen, I'm a white male and I know I'm on this whole white knight kick, but I just want to shake the world. It doesn't even directly affect me and I want to tear my hair out.
And yet, the movie really isn't about sexism. I mean, it is. But it is such a background thing that runs throughout the film. I know, my female readers are probably rolling their eyes right now because this is something that they probably deal with on a daily / hourly / constant basis, but the movie has to go on in spite of sexism. It's not constantly called out because of course everyone is sexist. There are times where the movie will express the frustrations that I'm talking about right now. But the majority of the movie treats this as "this is what life is like." That's disturbing as all get out. When Dr. Amani has success in the film, it is the smallest gasp of fresh air because we know that she achieved something marvelous in spite of everything that is going against her. The movie contrasts this with her co-worker, the older surgeon who has no anesthetic to work with. He's this older gentleman, someone who should by all rights be part of the old guard. Instead, he's the one who advocates for her. He naturally gains instant respect for being male and elder and he trades all of his goodwill and man points over to this woman who could be his daughter or granddaughter. It's just a bizarre world.
I get preachy with these things, so I'd like to apologize the fact that I'm probably about to double down on this idea. We don't know how good we have it. I'm not naive enough to think that I have readers in war torn countries. I have a hard enough time trying to get people who like me in reality to read this blog. But the movie returns to the motif of the ballet on the iPhone. There's no speaker system. There's no anesthetic. There's a surgeon who begs his patients to focus on the music so he can perform surgeries on them while they are awake. And he cries when he was to do it. That's a real reality for people that I can't even comprehend. This is a hospital without medicine. What makes it a hospital is its name and the fact that it has learned professionals who desperately want to save lives. The bombing makes the lights go out. The technology is a crapshoot. It used to work. It probably cost millions of dollars to get here. But it also tends to provide more shelter and wall support than much that can actually help. And yet, there are people all throughout the movie who do their best in the midst of terrible situations. I'm sure that no one wants a thirty-year-old in charge of a hospital. I'm sure that no one wants a nearly geriatric surgeon in charge of a surgery, especially one without anesthesia. Everyone in this hospital seems to be the definition of ragtag. A nurse doubles as a cook and it is heavily implied that, as much as she tries, she's not very good at either. Everything is makeshift and that's the way that it has to be.
I do have criticisms about The Cave as a documentary. There is this insistence on recapturing organic moments. There are just scenes in the movie where the dialogue seems to be re-enacted, much like a reality show. It's really a bummer commenting on this because it makes sense why they did it. It helps paint the broader picture of things that they deal with every day. It's stilted and weird. Similarly, the movie has too many focuses. Like I mentioned, I question whether the movie is about sexism or the siege. I find it odd that the movie is called The Cave because the labyrinthine tunnels are hardly mentioned throughout the movie. It's really about the people.
There is one absolutely horrific moment, though, that might be the most intense moment out of all these documentaries. The other documentaries often talk about the physical explosions throughout the siege. This is the first movie that dealt with the horrors of chemical weapons. It's very upsetting and it is uncomfortable to think that people out there would not only target civilians, but also those who would help those civilians. It's really scary and it isn't for the faint of heart.
My heart breaks every time I watch one of these movies. They are so important and I'm never going to downplay that importance. But I just want to live in a world where they don't have to make documentaries about the horrors of civilian casualties. More and more, I'm reminded that the world is a terrible place. I just need faith that things will get better.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.