Syrian film director Feras Fayyad grabs his audience’s attention from the film’s opening scene, whether through a close-up fish eye view, accompanied by stirring orchestral music, as in Last Men in Aleppo (2017), or through a bird’s eye view of a sleeping city disrupted by successive bomb explosions, each followed by a mushroom cloud, as in The Cave (2019). Fayyad’s compelling anti-war documentaries should be “required viewing” by heads of state whose military bomb civilians indiscriminately.
Khaled and Mahmoud work for the White Helmets, an organization of construction workers and students who rush to newly bombed areas to save lives.
In Last Men in Aleppo, Fayyad’s crew of three cinematographers follows first responders brothers Khaled and Mahmoud through the rubble-strewn streets of the Syrian city in ambulances, cars, and on foot, giving the film a jittery, nervous feeling. Khaled and Mahmoud work for the White Helmets, an organization of construction workers and students who rush to newly bombed areas to save lives. When not steering ambulances toward bomb sites or using heaving machinery or their own brute strength to extract civilians buried under rubble, Khaled and Mahmoud are searching the skies for signs of the next planes dropping bombs.
Mahmoud, a philosophy student, thinks mostly of keeping his younger brother safe. He and his brother lie to their parents, saying they work in Turkey. Khaled, a former painter/construction worker, is trying to make Aleppo livable for his family, who live in constant danger not far from wherever he is working to save other families’ lives. He agonizes over an opportunity to move his family to Turkey. He declined it when it was possible. Now it is not.
He takes satisfaction in tending a garden, creating life instead of destroying it. He buys pet goldfish in an outdoor marketplace, and out of rubble, he constructs a fountain in which the fish can swim, joking that they may prove useful for selling or eating at some point. He says he cannot live outside Aleppo just as a fish cannot live out of water.
We watch Khaled pull away chunks of concrete large and small from enormous heaps of debris, to retrieve the bodies, alive or dead, or the body parts whose possible owners are discussed with other White Helmets. He jokes with the children he saves afterward and feigns insouciance around his own children on a trip to a playground, trying to give them some sense of having a normal childhood. As with many great men, he prophesies his own death, which, when it comes—this is a documentary filmed as things happen—stuns us.
In The Cave, Fayyad’s sequel to Last Men in Aleppo, Fayyad’s crew of three cinematographers tracks a corps of 130 mostly female medical personnel, working in an excavated, underground hospital below Al Ghouta, Syria, nicknamed “the Cave” by the team. The film focuses on 30-year-old Dr. Amani Ballour, a pediatrician twice elected to run the hospital. She performs surgeries, procures food, obtains medicine and supplies, restores electricity, and deals with damage to the hospital after it is bombed.
Is God really watching?,” Dr. Ballour asks when the horrors leave her feeling helpless. She questions the intentions of men and religion and Russian planes and sexism.
We fret, along with Dr. Ballour, about future bombings. We can hear her breathing. Loud strikes aboveground sound close. She agonizes over the need she feels to save as many lives as possible, even as she longs to return to her family, heard on a cell phone pressuring her to quit. “Is God really watching?,” she asks when the horrors leave her feeling helpless. She questions the intentions of men and religion and Russian planes and sexism. She regrets eating when others do not have food. She wonders why people have children.
A male visitor to the Cave who cannot get medicine due to shortages blames Dr. Ballour for doing “a man’s work” instead of housework. Aboveground, women may be harmed or killed for having a job, so Dr. Ballour recruits mostly women. We watch her tell a young female patient to do something important when she is grown, something that will give her life purpose.
Dr. Salim, the male senior surgeon, plays soothing classical music on his cell phone, which he leans against a nearby wall during operations. The music substitutes for anesthesia. Power outages interrupt life-saving surgery. Dr. Salim is handsome and good-humored, but even he cries at one point, his sleeve blood-stained. He says they have no choice about what they do. They simply must.
Samaher, a nurse who helps with surgeries and cooks using limited rations, feigns lightheartedness along with Dr. Salim, both serving as foils to Dr. Ballour, whose expression is almost always serious. When Dr. Ballour has a surprise birthday party involving blowing up a few balloons, crunching on popcorn, and eating cooked greens, a loud bomb blast during the party inspires terrified laughter.
When children arrive dying without visible injuries, making choking motions, the doctors suspect chemical inhalation of chlorine gas. They don masks. They make sure the Cave is adequately ventilated. They throw the contaminated clothing into fires that burn openly on the street amidst the rubble.
Fayyad’s crew shot their gripping footage in dark, narrow spaces despite the power outages and frequent bombing overhead. The heroism of the crew and the selfless dedication of the people they film are awe-inspiring. Fayyad documented the horror of babies and young children being pulled from rubble or rushed into a secret, underground hospital on stretchers as a testament to humankind’s capacity for both good and evil.
When children are harmed or killed or they miss their childhoods because the world in which they grow up is terrifying and crumbling around them, the viewer feels desperate for solutions.
The Last Men in Aleppo (2017) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2018
The Cave (2018) won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival