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The Cave and For Sama documentaries review: life inside a war zone

part of my Movies for the Resistance series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Two intimate documentaries from inside the Syrian civil war, diaries of women who stayed to fight for their nation and help their people, pay tribute to human perseverance and chide Western apathy.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Is the cure for sexism in a deeply misogynist culture — say, the one entrenched in the Middle East — merely the application of a horrifically brutal civil war, one that decimates cities and send citizens fleeing, requiring that women step up and do essential work such as doctoring?

Alas, as we see in The Cave, no.

Pediatrician “Doctor Amani” may have stubbornly refused to evacuate from Al-Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, in order to tend to her young patients who are suffering under the constant crime-against-humanity aerial bombardment of civilians from the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. She may be exhausting herself, physically and psychologically, serving as the manager of a ramshackle, catch-as-catch-can hospital known as The Cave — because part of it is now located underground, in tunnels much of the remaining populace has taken to for shelter — treating the terribly wounded and deeply traumatized as best she can under intolerable conditions and worse material deprivation.

The Cave
Imagine living down here for years…

But she will still have to face men striding into the hospital, scolding her to be a proper woman and go home, and demanding to speak to a male manager… as if a man would be able to magically conjure up the medication she carefully explains simply isn’t available in this apocalyptic city, under siege and cut off from the rest of the world. (Fortunately, her male colleagues back her up unconditionally.)

I mean: Argh. But also Amani Ballour is a hero(ine) for our times, one whom most of us in the West cannot even fathom the sacrifice, bravery, and audacity of, though this harrowing documentary does an excellent job of trying to convey it to us. Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad — Oscar-nominated last year for his searing doc Last Men in Aleppo, about the volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets — is a fly on the bombstruck, crumbling wall as Ballour and her fellow doctors and nurses patch up the wounded, comfort terrified kids, attempt to fortify the hospital against the regular bombing, and venture out into the city, under skies patrolled by Russian warplanes, to treat patients too ill to come in. Food is scarce, music is the only anesthetic available for surgeries, and the work is never ending.

The Cave
A pair of Doctor Amani’s young patients…

The Cave is a remarkable tribute to human perseverance, to the humor and spirit Ballour and her friends work hard to keep high, glimpsed via remarkable humane moments captured by Fayyad: Ballour’s moment of connection with a frightened, crying girl who is scared of the bombs; an ad hoc birthday party among the hospital staff, scrounged from what treats they can find; the heartbreakingly loving and supportive voicemails from her parents Ballour seems to draw strength from (they are babysitting her plants until she can return home *sniff*). Even her motivation for becoming a doctor, a response to her anger at her own society for telling her she should not pursue such a calling, is cheering in its tenacity.

But this difficult film is also a striking rebuke to the rest of the world for allowing the atrocities in Syria to happen, and to happen right before our eyes. The details of what we witness here, in events between 2016 and 2018, may be new — meet this specific child who suffered a broken arm in a bombing; listen to this mother’s howls of grief when she discovers her son is dead; look at this pile of discarded children’s clothes, unusable because they are soaked in the caustic liquids of chemical warfare. But nothing that occurs in this movie — including the appalling targeting of civilians with those chemical weapons — is anything we didn’t already know about. This is the shame of the whole world.

why do people keep having babies in the middle of a war?
For Waad Al-Kateab, a videographer who documented the Battle of Aleppo from 2012 to 2016, the stakes were even higher than those for Amani Ballour: Al-Khateab was with her husband and child in the besieged city. For Sama is Al-Kateab’s powerful diary — at once personal and journalistic — in which she directly addresses her baby daughter, Sama, to explain why the little family didn’t evacuate and what her parents were fighting for. It’s an incredible testament to defiance and resilience in the patriotic fight to defend one’s nation and one’s culture from oppressive bullies.

There is much overlap with what we see in The Cave, too — these two films are deeply complementary. Al-Khateab’s husband, Hamza, is also a doctor, and much of what she captures on video is the same struggle that Ballour endures. And For Sama addresses a quandary The Cave raises: Why do people continue to have babies in the midst of war? It’s a reasonable question, and the answer sings through in Al-Kateab’s images and narration, of moments of happiness and joy snatched in the middle of a city turned gray by dust and rubble: because life goes on and people persevere in the worst situations; what other choice do we have? It’s when love and hope cease to exist amidst war and destruction and death that all is lost.

For Sama Sama Al-Kateab
Baby Sama…

Al-Khateab’s is a heartbreaking testimony of what it means to be a civilian in the middle of war zone; her perspective as a wife and mother and her ruminations on the impossible decisions one must make about what is best for one’s family when one is fighting for the future are incisive. For Al-Kateab, “it makes the nightmares feel worthwhile” to stay and film the destruction of the city, to get the evidence out for the world to see.

Millions around the globe did watch her videos on YouTube; her husband appeared remotely on Western news networks. Their bravery and real-time reporting are part of how we knew what was happening inside Syria. (Not that it brought them any assistance. But that’s our fault, not theirs.) And so For Sama becomes a stunning upbraiding to the idea popular in certain circles these days that if you don’t like what’s happening in your country, you should just leave it. This is a wise, beautifully observed, and inspiring film that, I fear, has too much to say to those of us in the West worried about the dangerous paths our own nations seem to be heading down.


For Sama was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for July 26th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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