Documentary Review: In Syria, “The Cave” is a last refuge, a hospital underground

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We can look away from Syria. We have that option.

But for those trapped there, in the civil war that’s devolved into a murderous campaign of government reprisals, “There is no way out.”

Filmmaker  Feras Fayyad (“Last Men in Aleppo”) frames “The Cave,” his story of the underground world of Al-Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascas, with dreamy, almost beautiful images of caves and the sea, and the poetic voice-over narration of a young woman, Dr. Amani.

Everything within that framed opening and closing “The Cave” is grittier, pragmatic, the few remaining doctors, nurses and others struggling with triage and field surgery in DIY operating rooms and the tunnels that connect them.

As Dr. Amani treats a bloodied toddler, she asks a colleague, (in Arabic, with English subtitles) “Is God watching?”

Nurse Samaher cleans instruments and operating tables, pitches in on the cooking and copes with complaints about the food with “I’m cooking in a dangerous place,” give me break.

And every so often, they flinch, looking at the ceiling, or on a rare moment outside, at the sky?

“Russian warplane?” everybody wonders, having learned to identify their murderous tormentors by sound. “I hope they all burn in hell…May God destroy the Russians!”

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Fayyad promises, with opening shots of gloomy, eerie shafts and scenes of the maps of the extensive tunnel network that was expanded and dug out after the civil war began in 2013, a movie about an underground world, lives lived in hunched over survival mode. He would up limiting his film to the underground hospital, where the injured and dying are brought every day and certain to be the most dramatic element in this subterreanean world.

Dr. Salim props his iPod up on a shelf, video of Seiji Ozawa conducting warhorses of the classical music repertoire. He tries to calm a patient who frets, “Am I going to be alright?” with “We don’t have anesthetic. We have music.”

The flinching at every alarming sound — even at a passing motorcycle — is a constant reminder of people doing righteous work by tamping down relentless danger and fear.

“Maybe the bastards will stop bombing” is but a faint hope. Still, staff copes with the stress with humor — a makeshift birthday party here, a comical threat from the surgeon to the nurse there.

“Give me something sterile so I can hit you without causing an infection!”

Their forebearance extends to the society Dr. Amani is trying to save, where the male husband of a patient demands to speak to a “male manager” of the hospital, questioning her competence and the mere fact that a lady doctor exists in the Islamic patriarchy that is much of the Middle East. A male colleague tries to calm troubled waters, but Dr. Amani finally has enough.

“No one can tell me not to work!”

She lets us hear a little of her story, the medical school education that was almost complete when the war broke out, how “men in our society” are still holding women like her back, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

And most encouragingly, we see her giving a pep talk to a little girl, advising her that “We don’t have to be ordinary. We need to do something important!”

The grace notes don’t obscure the ugly situation we’re shown here. It’s not  compact, perfectly organized film, but “The Cave” is an honest fly-on-the-wall/cinema verite portrait of a place and a couple of the people working in it.

As with his Aleppo movie, Fayyad’s message to a deaf world wrapped up in more crises than it can cope with is “DO something.” But there’s a resignation here as well. Nothing will be done. All that be done is to flee from Assad and the Russians and let them do what they will to those left behind, ISIS or civilian, soldier or toddler.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13, scenes of wounded and dying victims of war, many of them children.

Credits: Directed by Feras Fayyad, written by Alisar Hasan, Feras Fayyad. A National Geographic release.

Running time: 1:37

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