Syrian documentarian Feras Fayyad was not permitted to enter the United States last year when his film Last Men In Aleppo was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Instead, he went back to work on his new project, The Cave, a shattering new film that contains some of the most remarkable documentary footage in recent memory.
Fayyad’s new film profiles 30-year-old pediatrician Dr. Amani Ballor, who manages a remarkable hospital run out of a cave underneath Eastern Ghouta, where a years-long siege has killed thousands of civilians. Fayyad and his crew capture moments of extraordinary courage and unspeakable horror; their cameras were rolling during a deadly chemical attack that sent dying children to the hospital. The Cave is a noble work of great humanity, exquisite craft, and moral urgency.
Austin Dale: I’m fascinated by Dr. Amani, the central character in your film. I’d like to know how you met her in the first place. Was this before or after Last Men In Aleppo?
Feras Fayyad: First of all, my heart is going out to the people of Northern Syria, and I wish there were people like Dr. Amani helping the victims out there. The idea of the film came before Last Men In Aleppo. She was a little bit careful about her life, and not ready to tell that story, to be a public picture, because during the chemical attacks in Damascus in 2013, she was one of the first to have testimony coming out. I met her in 2013, and we talked about it for a long time. She’s out of Syria now, but she’s still in danger.
I told her my personal story that I grew up with a big family of very strong females, and we found a connection around that, and she understood that part of my reason to tell her personal story was because I had a connection to my personal story. I wanted to bring the story of this woman who is going through so much, changing the state around her, dealing with the mental health problems of the people and the destruction of facilities, when she was a victim of the war and a victim of the chemical attacks. Through the process, we discovered that she was the first female doctor to manage a hospital in the whole history of Syria.
But one thing that is important: She told me that my camera should not stop her from doing what she does, and she has to continue to save lives. It’s not a movie, it’s a testimony of war crimes.
AD: Last Men in Aleppo was a very successful documentary in America, and I'm curious to know if there was a response to the film in Syria.
FF: The Syrian Regime launched a strong media propaganda campaign against me as a result of the film, even going as far as to show my picture on television and label me a bad person. They managed to reach a lot of people with this disinformation. It was very hard for me and motivated a lot of hate towards me from my society. I lost a lot of friends, broke down and even had to go therapy. Furthermore, a lot of people who collaborated on the film distanced themselves.
AD: From what I understand, Dr. Amani and the team in the hospital are now out of Syria, but they're also dealing with the psychological effect of the trauma from working under siege. I'm wondering how you and the other filmmakers are dealing with that, and if there have been any psychological effects from making the movie.
FF: Yeah. Personally, this left me with so much damage and destruction. I went to the hospital, and I went to a therapist until I could manage to continue. It was very difficult for my team to go through this. Sometimes, we were working one or two hours and we couldn’t continue. Sometimes we would wake up early in the morning just with the sound of something moving outside, because the effect was so strong on us.
I really wanted this people to understand that this is a story made with so much sacrifice: our pain, and blood, and our mental health. It’s necessary testimony about war crimes, and I try to take an approach that brings it up for their engagement and involvement to help us address the current situation.
This story is full of our pain, and the injustice of the situation and the psychology of destruction, took an emotional toll, and made us feel like there is no hope in a way. And we bring this story to bring a little bit of hope, and when we meet people who watch the movie, they respond to that. Their words are like medicine for us.
AD: It’s interesting to hear you talk about hope. I think a lot about your characters’ own ways of finding hope, particularly the doctor, listening to classical music in his emergency room. He’s holding onto his cultural identity, and it felt to me like that was a very important part of his fight.
I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about what surprised you about some of the people working in the hospital, and how they tried to find their hope and retain their strength in the face of all this violence.
FF: The hospital wasn't just a hospital. It was kind of a beacon of hope for the people going there. Dr Salim would often listen to music by avant-garde composers from Russia, who were pushed out of Russia under Stalin, and they used weapons to kill these people, like what’s happening in Syria. We talked about his emotional connection with them because that, for him, was a significant kind of resistance.
And Dr. Amani’s story itself is a beacon of hope. It was really inspiring. Every little girl comes to her and goes away from her a different person, because she gives them the ability to talk. She could give them space to talk. Normally, those girls, they didn't have space for themselves, but she asked them personal questions, she tried to ask them about themselves, about their identity. And, you know, one word could affect and change the lives of people. Myself, when I was in primary school, my teacher—a female teacher—noticed I didn’t get enough attention, and she told me in a very nice way and a supportive way, that even if I don't feel the benefits of it, I should be using my imagination. Some words are very, very important and change the life of children. Amani was changing a lot of girls’ lives every day.
AD: Here in America, we have our election next year and I'm just wondering what you’d ask, if you had one question to ask the presidential candidates?
FF: I would hope they understand that no regime can come without war, without trouble. No one wishes to leave his home, because there is no reason for him to do that. They should remember that in our memory, there is so much pain. More than 500,000 people have been killed, and these people need justice, and their relatives as well. So, they have to consider Syria as one of their priorities, because America can have a powerful impact for the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.