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'The Cave' is a Fearless Look at the War in Syria
January 25, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Calif. – Growing up in Syria, Amani Ballour knew a world of rules and limits.

"There are too many differences between boys and girls…. I couldn't play with boys. I couldn't climb the tree. I couldn't ride the bike," she recalled. "This (was) prevented for girls in my community."

There were professions open to her – but, again, with limits. A woman could "be a doctor, but a doctor for children or for women in your clinic, but not a manager."

Then war changed everything. As the Oscar-nominated The Cave shows, Dr. Ballour administered an underground hospital in the bomb-battered city of Ghouta, near Damascus.

Now, with the film showing Saturday on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. ET, her life is in limbo. On one hand, she says she's been rejected several times in trying to emigrate from Turkey to Canada; on the other, she's won the Raoul Wallenberg Prize, named for a man who saved thousands of Jews.

Ballour, 32, received the award Jan. 17, then talked that day to the Television Critics Association via Skype from Paris. "For more than four years, we were under bombing, under siege, without food, without medicine, without medical supplies," she said.

Some of the filmmakers were with the TCA in Pasadena, but not director Ferras Fayyad. His bid to get an extended U.S. visa has been denied by the U.S. embassy in Copenhagen, producer Sigrid Dyekjaer said, and he was detained by Danish officials when returning from Turkey. It's been a difficult time, she said, "for a man who has been imprisoned and tortured in Syria and whose family is under threat."

Fayyad previously drew an Oscar nomination for Last Men in Aleppo, another film about Syrian rebels. Then he began shooting the Cave footage, sometimes sending it by satellite and sometimes having it smuggled out. "We produced it while it was being shot," Dyekjaer said.

That included showing three minutes to National Geographic, which joined the marathon production.

"It was a long, long process," said Peter Albrechtsen, an award-winning sound editor. "It was 500 hours of material, and we were picture-editing for more than a year, doing sound for half a year."
Along the way, Ballour emerged as a logical focal point.

Fresh out of medical school, she joined the hospital in 2013 – the year of a fierce attack. "It was a chemical attack (with) Sarin gas," Ballour said. "We didn't know that it was Sarin, but it was a very brutal attack. More than 1,000 people died that night….

"All the people were suffocating, and we had to choose who we should help…. I chose some children to help. It was very difficult (to see) many dead bodies for children, without blood, without injury. They were sleeping in the night and never got up."

The hospital kept digging in, literally. It went deeper underground; it had tunnels, including one leading to the cemetery.

She could have taken a tunnel to freedom, but resisted. "I (studied) medicine to help people," she said.

Instead of fleeing, she was elected the hospital manager, a remarkable step in a patriarchal society, and one that drew complaints from some patients.

She stayed in charge for two years, until the end. "They used chemicals, they used everything, all types of weapons…. They said, 'You can leave by buses, or we will kill you.'"

Ballour still managed to smile for her young patients. "This is very important to…make children feel happy, feel a little safe…. They need nothing. Some food and safe, this is their dream."

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