Caught between the precipitous explosions of IEDs overhead and the continuous stereotypes received by women in Syrian society below, Dr. Amani Bellaur opens her heart and Underground Hospital operations in Feras Fayyad’s latest documentary, The Cave.
Fayyad, best known for his last Syrian War-based documentary, Last Men in Aleppo, took the opportunity to return to his home country and focus on the not-so-visible protagonists: the people who have chosen not to flee their home, made up of the doctors that risk their lives on the daily and those who have stuck around to help the wounded gain some semblance of medical care.
A tough ask given the war-torn landscape of the besieged Al-Ghouta suburb of Damascus. An even tougher ask considering Dr. Bellaur is a woman heading a major hospital and still must deal with sexism from others despite other more pressing medical issues. Read our review of the documentary here.
At a recent New York screening, Dr. Bellaur was present to answer questions from Katie Couric and with the film’s producer Sigrid Dyekjaer. A snippet of the post-screening questions are as follows:
Katie Couric: Amani, why were you hesitant? Why did it take a while for you to be convinced that you would participate in the making of this film?
Amani Bellaur: Actually, we were talking for about four years before starting filming. Before we start filming, we were for four years underneath bombing and starvation. Everything was bad. And we were hopeful at the beginning that some of them help us, that the international community would do something for us, but they were not coming. So we hope that the film would make the pressure to help Syrians to change the situation which is still happening. You know, it’s important to know this is something that is still happening now. Now people are in the north of Syria are being bombed. And now people in the prison are being tortured for long years. And they are hopeful that maybe someone was there for long years, but no one cares about this. It is very important to talk about them. Try to find a way, any way, to help them.
Couric: So what can American citizens who are outraged and so upset by the situation, what can be done?
Sigrid Dyekjaer: Well, I think, first of all, you can watch the film. I mean, that’s the smallest thing everyone can do. And I’ve heard people tell me, it’s so tough, and it’s a really tough movie. And I’m like, yeah, well, you know, you have to watch it. That’s your obligation. That’s the smallest thing you can do. Because that is their reality that’s there every day. So, we should watch it. And we should tell other people to watch it. We are witnesses to what they have been going through. And the second thing is, of course, to make sure politicians watch the film… And I think we can show the film to schools. You know, the film won a youth award at a big festival in Europe just a few weeks ago. So, the youngsters really want to watch the film. They are activists and they want to do a different world. So, they’re not afraid to watch films like this. So, I think we should make sure that they watch it. And Dr. Amani and we created a fund called the Amal Fund, which means hope. And Amani is going to administrate the fund. And we are hoping people would give money to the fund. So that money can help women coming out of Syria that needs education. You can imagine how many years this war has taken. And there’s a whole generation that didn’t get school, they didn’t finish their education. So, Amani is going to help them when they get out, especially if there are young women who need education and a better chance for themselves. And I think hopefully, at some point, you know, we can have Assad put to justice at the Hague, you know, in the criminal justice court. I hope that’s what’s going to happen. So, all the material we shot and the film is delivered to The Hague. And one day he will be put to justice.
Couric: So it must have been devastating to be there in person capturing these images. And then I know in the editing room, it was so traumatic for some of the two of the editors to watch the scenes over and over and over again, that you’ve called in someone to help them, a therapist, to help them deal with their feelings. So can you just help us understand a little bit about how challenging this every conceivable way?
Dyekjaer: I think it’s first important to save that for us, Fayyad, who directed this film also did a film called Last Men in Aleppo, and he is a Syrian refugee. So he experienced the war on his body. He was two times in prison. One of the times, the last time, was 18 months in prison. He was tortured. You know, everything that can happen, happened to him in prison. So when we met Feras, we knew that we were just a Danish production company. And he happens to live in Denmark as a refugee. And we really wanted to pay the respect to him to understand his culture, where he comes from and what had happened to him. So we never saw ourselves as some sort of saviors or, you know, really great storytellers. We actually lay flat down on the floor, and we asked him, ‘How do you want to do this film?’ And then our job was just to do it in the best possible way. Because he’s writing his own country’s history. And we’re just the helpers. But of course the helpers, it’s devastating to watch your life, Amani, all the many years in the cave. And the first part of the material we actually couldn’t really use because the cinematographers were men and they had a hard time filming Amani because of the culture. So they would film her and then they would remove the camera, or they would film her and her female team and as soon as a man came into the room, they’ll start looking at the man. So actually, Feras fought for a long time to make them keep looking at the women, and look at them as they are people and not think of them about their sex. And that took a long time. So we actually have material all the way back from ‘13. But most of the film is ‘16 to ‘18. And then we had to bring in a therapist and the therapist was really there to sort of put the team together. We had 12 translators in our office, and a lot of them were Syrian refugees. So we had sort of our own refugee camp in the office. And of course, I mean, can you guys imagine? You live in Denmark and the United States, New York City is bombed. And I invite you into my office to look at this material where New York City is bombed. And I asked you to watch all the material and translate from English to Danish. It’s devastating. So we use the therapist to also understand what our Syrian team was going through. And also to, of course, respect what the editors were going through because they have to feel in order to edit. So, they have to take all in, feel it in their body before they can make a cut. So just the chemical attack scene you saw, we had many of those, we didn’t only have one. And that took three weeks to edit that one scene. So thank you to National Geographic, I don’t know where they are. But thank you to them. We could make a secure working space for people working on this film because I know you guys have been touched today. But I promise you our editors, many days they couldn’t work. They had to go home and sleep and rest and not work.