Dr. Amani Ballour, a woman physician in male-dominated and war-wracked Syria, tends to a patient in “The Cave.” (National Geographic)

Dr. Amani Ballour, a woman physician in male-dominated and war-wracked Syria, tends to a patient in “The Cave.” (National Geographic)

An Oscar-nominated documentary takes us inside hellish Syria

“The Cave” focuses on an underground hospital tending to the victims of the country’s civil war.

Criticize the Oscar nominations all you want, but it’s hard to carp about the documentary category. I’ve seen four of the five nominated pictures, and they are knockouts.

“American Factory” is about a Chinese company imposing its methods on a workplace in Ohio; “The Edge of Democracy” traces recent Brazilian history. And if politics in Brazil sounds alien, rest assured that the film’s portrait of how an ignorant, mean-spirited populist could ascend to the presidency (we’re talking about Jair Bolsonaro) feels very urgent.

There’s also the fascinating “Honeyland,” which made history by becoming the first movie ever nominated in both the documentary and foreign-film categories.

Two nominees come from Syria. I haven’t seen “For Sama” yet, but “The Cave” arrives this week for a regular run. This devastating film looks at medical workers operating in an improvised hospital beneath the streets of a Damascus suburb.

The hospital has been driven into a series of tunnels because regular bombings, courtesy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies, have turned the streets into rubble. “The Cave” focuses on a handful of doctors, nurses and staff, especially on Dr. Amani Ballour, a woman physician in a male-dominated country.

Through her eyes, we experience the chaos and heartbreak that unfolds in the tunnels. Scenes of wounded civilians brought down for treatment alternate with quieter moments: a birthday party with popcorn as a special treat, or the kitchen staff worrying about how to feed everyone with a few pounds of rice and some margarine.

Not only does Ballour have to deal with the bloodshed, but periodically someone pops by to tell her that women should stay at home and not be doctors. Even in the midst of war, good old-fashioned sexism thrives.

Syrian director Feras Fayyad previously made the Oscar-nominated “Last Man in Aleppo.” Some of the footage from “The Cave” had to be smuggled out of the country on thumb drives.

The result is almost unbearable to watch. Fayyad, in editing hundreds of hours of material, tends to focus on wounded children. This becomes especially agonizing during a sequence when the doctors suspect that the injured are victims of a chemical attack.

These moments nearly crush the people we’ve been following. Dr. Salim Namour, for instance, is an old-school surgeon who plays Mozart and Tchaikovsky in the operating room (“We don’t have anesthetic, but we have music”). When even his jovial demeanor is shattered by the chemical attack, it’s like seeing the last hope snuffed out.

“The Cave” isn’t perfect; like so many otherwise fine documentaries, it uses far too much music to drum up its drama — as if there wasn’t enough of that already. And it’s possible Fayyad miscalculates how many times a viewer can endure yet another bloody attack.

The brief glimpses above ground are haunting, such as the sight of a man (a restaurant worker? An average citizen?) running through the streets to bring a vat of soup to the hospital. He might as well be carrying a solitary torch of humanity.

By the way, director Fayyad has thus far been denied a visa by the U.S. government to travel to Hollywood for the Oscars, because he is Syrian. So the next time somebody tells you the Oscars shouldn’t be political, tell them to put a sock in it.

“The Cave” (3 stars)

A devastating Oscar-nominated documentary about hospital workers crowded into tunnels beneath the bombed-out streets of a Damascus suburb. Director Feras Fayyad presents an almost unbearable look at the cost of the Syrian civil war, as well as a portrait of a female doctor trying to save lives in a male-dominated society.

Rating: PG-13, for violence, subject matter

Opening Friday: Grand Illusion, Seattle

Talk to us

More in Life

Darlene Love, Steven Van Zandt and Paul Shaffer  performed in concert at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park on Sept. 12, 2015.
Pandemic’s not stopping Christmas Queen Darlene Love

The singer best known for “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” will perform her annual holiday concert online this year.

roses
A gardener’s to-do list for winterizing the yard — Part 2

Try to accomplish most of these chores, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get them all done.

Caleb Sanders and Ashley Dougherty help decorate for the Trees of Christmas event at the Everett Bible Baptist Church. (Maria Lara)
Church keeps Christmas tradition alive with drive-thru event

Everett Bible Baptist Church hosts Trees of Christmas, with music, narration and special treats for the family.

Mexican sedum is an excellent groundcover plant, forming a dense carpet of glossy chartreuse leaves. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: Sedum kimnachii aka Mexican sedum

An excellent groundcover plant, this variety forms a flat, dense carpet of glossy chartreuse leaves.

Make holidays brighter with energy saving tips and gifts

Snohomish County PUD shares five smart ways to find joy in the season that use less electricity.

John Spadam owner, at Spada Farmhouse Brewery in Snohomish. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Spada ready to show off new bar and restaurant in Snohomish

During the pandemic, the Spada family has been busy renovating an old building on First Street.

Precept Wine, the largest privately-owned wine company in Washington, recruited Seattle native Sarah Cabot to take over its pinot noir production in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 2014. (Precept Wine)
Six examples of award-winning pinot noir in the Northwest

The Willamette Valley of Oregon has a reputation for the red wine, but there are other success stories in the area.

To deposit a coin in the Bonzo bank, you had to push his tummy. His tongue would come out of his mouth to deposit the coin inside. Many similar banks were made picturing other comic characters. (Cowles Syndicate Inc.)
Mechanical bank of the first famous Bonzo sells for $1,800

The dog decorating the front of the tin bank was a comic cartoon star from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Design elements of the M235i Gran Coupe include angled headlights, four-eyed halo daytime running lights, and BMW’s traditional kidney grille. (Manufacturer photo)
BMW’s compact 2 Series Gran Coupe is all new to the 2020 lineup

A turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive, and 8-speed automatic transmission are standard on both versions.

Most Read