Stephen Ap­ple­baum learns about the fe­male doc­tor at the heart of Feras Fayyad’s lat­est film

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Feras Fayyad be­came the first Syr­ian di­rec­tor to have a film nom­i­nated for an Acad­emy Award. The nod came when his sear­ing doc­u­men­tary, Last Men

in Aleppo (2017), which cen­tres on Syria’s vol­un­teer searc­hand-res­cue or­gan­i­sa­tion, the White Hel­mets, was in the run­ning for Best Doc­u­men­tary Fea­ture last year. His lat­est film, The Cave, could make him a con­tender once again.

Not that awards are the point of his work. Fayyad, who un­der­went pro­longed tor­ture as a pris­oner of the Syr­ian regime, is is­su­ing a call to ac­tion from an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that has thus far stood by as his coun­try is torn apart. Shot by a team of three cin­e­matog­ra­phers from Da­m­as­cus be­tween 2016 and 2018, and directed re­motely by Fayyad, his lat­est doc­u­men­tary takes us inside The Cave, a makeshift un­der­ground hos­pi­tal lo­cated in a net­work of tun­nels, where fear­ful civil­ians took refuge from bar­rages by regime forces above ground dur­ing the siege of East­ern Ghouta that lasted for more than five years.

His way in is Dr Amani Bal­lour (re­ferred to in the film as Dr Amani), 30, a pae­di­a­tri­cian who stayed in East­ern Ghouta to aid peo­ple who re­fused to be forced from their homes. “East­ern Ghouta suf­fered the long­est siege in mod­ern his­tory,” says Fayyad, speak­ing from New York. “There was no way in, no way out. There were 12 chem­i­cal at­tacks and no­body re­acted.

“Just think about it. There is a crazy gov­ern­ment us­ing chem­i­cal at­tacks against its own peo­ple, again and again and again. There are thou­sands of in­ter­na­tional laws not al­low­ing this to hap­pen, but it’s hap­pen­ing. It makes you feel de­stroyed and crazy.”

Fayyad’s film is an at­tempt to shame the world into ac­tion by show­ing the con­se­quences of its in­ac­tion. “My mis­sion was to bring this sit­u­a­tion into a doc­u­men­tary so emo­tional that peo­ple con­nect to, feel and un­der­stand the im­pact of these war crimes on the civil­ians who want to stay and don’t have any in­ten­tion of leav­ing. I feel this is the story of mil­lions of Syr­i­ans; a story that should be seen by ev­ery­one.”

Fayyad first saw Dr Amani in footage shot by a friend that showed the af­ter­math of the 2013 sarin at­tack on East­ern Ghouta. “There were 1,500 peo­ple killed in one night,” he says. “She was sit­ting, sur­rounded by the bod­ies of chil­dren and women, and it was really shock­ing. She knew there was a chem­i­cal at­tack, but she didn’t know what to do. A doc­tor is not trained enough to deal with this kind of use of chem­i­cals.”

The di­rec­tor con­tacted her and they kept in touch. By the time film­ing be­gan in East­ern Ghouta, she had made his­tory by be­com­ing the first fe­male man­ager of a hos­pi­tal in Syria.

She’s one of the few women to grad­u­ate as a doc­tor from Da­m­as­cus Uni­ver­sity and says she strives to change the way women are per­ceived and treated. For Fayyad, who saw his Kur­dish mother suf­fer be­cause of her her­itage and gen­der and watched help­lessly as two of his seven sis­ters lost jobs be­cause they were women, Dr Amani was sim­i­lar to a “su­per­hero in a comic, but real”.

“I didn’t want to tell the story of trau­ma­tised Syr­ian refugees whose pri­mary role is to evoke tears,” he says. Nor did he want to “show a woman as a mother, wife or lover”. Rather, he wanted to re­flect the “gen­der, shift I saw strongly hap­pen­ing” as he filmed with fe­male jour­nal­ists, ac­tivists and lawyers in Aleppo and Idlib. Iron­i­cally, it’s the con­flict that has, in part, opened up new op­por­tu­ni­ties for women.

“Be­cause they know they could die, al­ways, why not fight for their rights?” says Fayyad. “Also, a lot of men have died around them, so there are empty spa­ces that need to be filled by some­body and women are manag­ing to do that.”

He ac­knowl­edges that the women he met were still a mi­nor­ity, but says he hopes that in bring­ing sto­ries of peo­ple such as Dr Amani to the screen, a big­ger cul­tural change might oc­cur. How­ever, it wasn’t a fore­gone con­clu­sion that she would be his fo­cus. While his team filmed in East­ern Ghouta, Fayyad risked be­ing cap­tured and ex­e­cuted by Al Qaeda or killed in a bomb­ing to film other fe­male sub­jects in hos­pi­tals in Idlib and the Aleppo coun­try­side.

“You can’t ex­actly de­cide about your sub­ject com­pletely, es­pe­cially in this sit­u­a­tion,” he says. “You can’t de­cide what is go­ing to hap­pen, es­pe­cially with the dan­gers in the hos­pi­tal. So I didn’t know if Dr Amani would be, in the end, my sub­ject, but I was ask­ing my cin­e­matog­ra­phers to fo­cus on her and her work.”

They also vividly cap­tured a nurse called Sama­her, whose mem­ory had been dam­aged by a bomb blast, and Dr Salim, a for­mer pro­fes­sor at Da­m­as­cus Uni­ver­sity, who used classical mu­sic to soothe pa­tients in lieu of anaes­thetic and as a form of re­sis­tance against the bar­barism of the regime.

Fayyad lost con­tact with his cin­e­matog­ra­phers when the in­ter­net satel­lite they were us­ing to send him footage was de­stroyed. Three months later, af­ter the forced dis­place­ment of peo­ple from East­ern Ghouta, the cin­e­matog­ra­phers joined Fayyad in Idlib, where he also met Dr Amani face-to-face for the first time, car­ry­ing ma­te­rial they’d smug­gled through regime check­points.

To his amaze­ment, they had filmed a chem­i­cal at­tack. “To have such great ev­i­dence of a bar­baric crime and to have that cap­tured through the eyes of Dr Amani is some­thing be­yond any imag­i­na­tion,” he says. His crew would have been “killed or kid­napped” if they’d been ex­posed, he says.

To­gether, he and his cin­e­matog­ra­phers amassed 1,200 hours of footage. But when he went into the edit­ing room, Fayyad says he re­alised he had to set the ma­te­rial he’d risked his life for aside and fo­cus on the East­ern Ghouta story. “It was very painful,” he ad­mits.

So was edit­ing the film. Go­ing through the footage and se­lect­ing the best mo­ments to create the con­nec­tion he sought be­tween sub­ject and viewer was dif­fi­cult, both phys­i­cally and men­tally.

“Some­times we’d edit for one hour and it felt like two days,” the film­maker re­calls. “My body some­times shut down, like all the en­ergy had fallen out of it, and I couldn’t open my eyes. But I feel like what I am try­ing to do is worth it. Not just for me but for my sub­jects and for the peo­ple who worked with me and suf­fered do­ing this work.

In­evitably, there has been push­back from the regime, as there was to­wards Last Men in

Aleppo. “One of the sub­jects of the film was cap­tured and is in jail and we’ve re­moved his im­age,” says Fayyad. “Sama­her was cap­tured and then taped by a jour­nal­ist work­ing for RT and Syr­ian TV. She was forced to give a story against our movie and asked for in­for­ma­tion about my lo­ca­tion and my fam­ily’s lo­ca­tion.”

Fayyad says he isn’t giv­ing up, how­ever, and is al­ready work­ing on his next project about fe­male lawyers in Syria.

“I have wit­nessed so much crime, I feel I have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to film this for the out­side world. That’s how my brain func­tions, I think. It’s the daily con­ver­sa­tion inside my brain.”

I feel this is the story of mil­lions of Syr­i­ans; a story that should be seen by ev­ery­one

Above and left, Dr Amani Bal­lour is the fo­cus of a film by Feras Fayyad, above Fayyad; AFP Pho­tos Feras

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