When caves appear in movies, they tend to be sinister, life threatening locations. The extraordinary documentary “The Cave,” however, focuses on a place where just the opposite scenario is playing out.
The latest film by Feras Fayyad, whose “Last Men in Aleppo” was Oscar nominated, “The Cave” does not technically take place in a cave but in an underground hospital which has taken that name.
This network of labyrinthine tunnels and rooms served for more than five years — until it was overrun in 2018 — as a place of refuge for a besieged, completely surrounded enclave called eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus.
While Russian warplanes supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad systematically attempted to bomb the area into rubble, the doctors and other medical personnel of the Cave followed two simple goals: Be of service and survive.
It is the disconcerting gift of cinéma vérité to put us right in the middle of a hospital attempting to function surrounded by conditions accurately described as “like a fire from hell.”
We see, as only an observational documentary can show us, what it’s like to function in a place of continual crisis, to have to deal with not only the noise, tension and terror of aerial bombardment but also the relentless stream of wounded, many of them children, brought to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.
We also see, and this is “The Cave’s” raison d'être, the actions of a handful of beyond dedicated doctors and other medical personnel — many of them women also contending with the norms of a patriarchal culture — individuals who refused to leave the area because the need was so great.
Given that eastern Ghouta was completely cut off from the world, Syrian director Fayyad was in the unusual position of not being on location when the film was being shot.
He was, however, in constant contact with his trio of cinematographers (Muhammed Kahir Al Shami, Ammar Suleiman, Mohammed Eyad), commenting on their footage and directing their movements.
“The Cave’s” focus is on Dr. Amani, a young (she turns 30 during filming) hijab-wearing pediatrician who abandoned advanced studies to be of assistance and who turned out to be such a gifted administrator that she was elected by her peers to be the hospital’s managing director.
Following her like a second skin, “The Cave’s” cinematographers reveal Dr. Amani’s grace under fire, her deep concern for wounded children (“Let’s keep smiling for the children,” she tells a colleague) and her fury at what is going on.
“Is God really watching?” she asks in despair at one point, adding a furious “may God destroy the Russians” at another.
On a personal level, Dr. Amani has to deal with unapologetic sexism (“a male manager would do a better job,” a visitor tells her to her face) as well as the feelings of her parents, who worry about her safety and wish she were home.
“The Cave” also introduces Dr. Amani’s colleagues, including her closest friend, Dr. Alaa, to whom she confesses she feels guilty eating with so much malnutrition around her.
There is also Dr. Salim, an unflappable senior surgeon who insists on operating with classical music videos playing on his phone, and the lively Samaher, a nurse who also cooks for the hospital despite a head injury received during a previous attack.
Along with the grim situation everyone exists in, “The Cave” makes sure to reveal lighter, more human moments as well, especially a surprise birthday party for Dr. Amani where popcorn is the treat of all treats.
The worst moment comes near the end, where victims of a terrifying chemical weapons attack show up, dying though they have no visible wounds.
With Syria once again in the news for all the worst reasons, “The Cave” reminds us of the horrors of a situation we have perhaps become numb to and shows us the unforgettable people who don’t have that luxury.
“No one can imagine the things we have seen,” Dr. Amani says. To watch this film is a moving opportunity to see for ourselves.
Rated: PG-13, for disturbing war related thematic content and images
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles