EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW | Feras Fayyad and Kirstine Barfod on profound documentary The Cave

We meet the director and producer behind this moving and important film about the crisis in Syria

Photo by Stine Heilmann

It feels almost wrong to be sat down with Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad and Danish producer Kirstine Barfod at such a grandiose London location. For the film they are in the English capital to promote is one of devastation, as they delve underground, into a subterranean hospital where female doctors work tirelessly to help poor innocent casualties of the ongoing war. In this moving conversation we discuss the importance of sharing their story, and Fayyad in particular talks about how difficult this entire experience has been for him as a Syrian filmmaker. We also converse about the feministic angle of the film, whether Fayyad’s Oscar nomination for Last Men in Aleppo has served him well in this industry, and what they hope a film of this nature can achieve, in a tumultuous and tragic socio-political climate.

How did you come to be aware of their story?
Feras Fayyad: I’m a Syrian and the story of the women is very real. Dr. Amani I first became aware of in 2013 after the first chemical attacks that happened, she was one of the few women who stayed behind to try and save lives, and take the risk to do that so I was interested to know more because I wanted to hear individual voices that have political opinions. I was searching for the democracy system in Syria and I’ve been fighting a long time for it, and I felt I hadn’t heard a lot of stories from women, and I felt her story would represent a lot of things. I started to connect with her and had conversations with her and I told her about my own story of how I grew up with a female family and how important it was for her to share her story and tell her stories, and it’s important for her to do what she does for women who are unrepresented in Syrian society. I want to build Syrian cinema that has a cultural voice independent from the propaganda cinema from the Syrian regime. I was searching for the truth. She wanted to participate in this documentary but I didn’t tell her she would be the main subject of the film.

The film is incredibly emotional and difficult to watch at times – is that the same for you, when watching with audiences at film festivals, does it still have that same emotional impact?
FF: I can’t watch it again actually. But I’ve found that a lot of people watching the film, especially journalists, don’t want to watch a film that is actually well-crafted, they’re used to seeing films like this almost destroyed, not good filmmaking, they think that’s the truth. But I filmed The Cave in an honest way, but because it’s been shot in a well-crafted way, do people think this is something real? For me as a Syrian who loves cinema, I feel like I’m fighting for Syrian cinema from my perspective. I feel like sometimes people want me to under-make the films I produce, this is what I feel. I fight to tell my stories, because we’re so used to seeing war stories with somebody running and screaming ‘oh God!’, but this is shit, actually. I don’t see cinema, I see somebody trying to make a noise, nothing more. I want to put the camera and try to catch the behaviour of the people, to be emotional and make a well-crafted film, and the whole sound and visuals and music, this is my fight, because while my subjects are powerful I want to put powerful elements of cinema in there too. The audiences have reacted well though, we have standing ovations most of the time. Our struggle sometimes was to tell the story how we wanted to, completely from our perspective, not like people wanted us to tell it.

The strength of these women is remarkable

I interviewed Elia Suleiman recently for It Must Be Heaven, which is a comedy, and he said it feels like producers and studios don’t want to hear that from Palestinian voices, they want to see an image reflected back to them of the Palestine they see on the news, full of death and destruction. Do you find that to be the case as as Syrian filmmaker too, they don’t want to see the human stories, they want to see sensationalism?
FF: Yeah, thankfully National Geographic gave me the final cut, and this is the first film they’ve done that, they’re not used to working this way. I feel empowered as a refugee filmmaker, a minority storyteller who has had a smaller space to tell my story, and it’s not been co-directed by a white person. We have lost our identity as Syrians and we have to fight to rebuild our identity again against the whole propaganda of the Syrian regime. Also the style of cinema coming from Syria and the Middle East, if you make a well-crafted film they don’t want it. This is their problem, it’s not my problem. If the film has bad sound, bad music, bad cinematography, it’s a great film for them.

Kirstine Barford: We’re talking about activist films, but with The Cave the idea was to bring it to a wider audience, and have this story out in the cinema.

FF: The idea of The Cave is not accepted in cinema, but for audiences it is. Because they’ve never experienced these things, so when they come and watch it they realise they’re watching a well-crafted movie about real people, they now understand, they see the faces, they see what’s happening, they see their emotions, and that is very important for me. I’m not talking about all journalists by the way, but a few do believe cinema from Syria must come from the war zone, they think I have to run with my camera all the time so it becomes a beautiful, important film, ‘the best film ever made in the history of cinema’.

The feministic angle is vital to this, and we see a strength only a woman carries, I could see my own mother in these women. The film is difficult and themes are upsetting – but is there an element of hope here? The resilience of human spirit is something I took away from this, as there’s equally as much courage away from the battlefield.
FF: Yeah I agree, that’s a beautiful way to see the movie. I want to tell the story about feminism and the social revolution that is happening in Syria, the gender revolution that is happening in Syria. What the Assad propaganda has done, is show us films that are about the conflict in Syria, it’s about the war and about the bombs. I try to show also a mirror for the real society to the Western world. It’s important for me in the UK and the US that this is screened, because there are theatres, a culture of going to the cinema and we do not have a system in place in Syria to do this. They would bomb the places where we screen the movie. So I’m reaching the Syrians by screening the movie here because there are a lot of Syrian refugees in England. The feminist idea to this is about the change that is happening against the patriarchal system established by Assad father and Assad son who are controlling the system, and it has effected the social lives of Syrians.

Dr. Amani

You mention showing the film around the world, how has that been? I interviewed Nadine Labaki about Capernaum, which focuses on child poverty in the Middle East, and she said there was a weird juxtaposition when the film played at Cannes, a place so over-indulgent, with red carpets, glitz and glamour, and she was there with this humanistic film. Is that a weird conflict for you too, to have a movie like this playing at lavish film festivals, which is so at odds with the story you’re telling and the lives you’re depicting?
FF: It’s a paradox for me. Sometimes I am pushed by my producers to smile and look happy, my National Geographic team keep asking me why I’m not happy, why aren’t I smiling and having fun. So of course for me it’s a paradox. People come to me and they want to understand the story inside the film and it’s very hard. I am bringing the death of my people, the destruction of my society, the city I lived and grew up in, to so many people. I just want to try and make people see it, to try and let them understand what I tried to do. As Agnes Varda said, film is all about pain but she tried to present the pain through joy. I try, I try to defend the death and the hard moments of the harsh reality around us and I try to find a joyfulness, showing the powerful gene of happiness from the people. I don’t have that gene myself, I have to try and create it, but it’s hard for me, it’s really a paradox, I live in a paradox. Sometimes I ask myself if I’m in a nightmare, am I dreaming or is this reality? It’s otherworldly for me.

In spite of that, you got an Oscar nomination before – has that helped your career? Have you noticed a palpable change as a filmmaker off the back of such an accolade – does it make any difference at all?
FF: No.

KB: Well, as a producer I think it helped us for sure.

FF: I started this film just after Sundance and I didn’t have an Oscar nomination yet, and there wasn’t a lot of people had seen the film, and this was behind other Syrian films running for the Oscar, from studios like Amazon and National Geographic and Netflix. But sometimes the Oscar nomination can make things difficult, and for me it did because the nomination is given because they have empathy with you, they don’t try to see what we tried to produce, then when you come with the next film they want you to stay where you are. It’s like what they see in the film is what they see in the filmmaker, they do not see the artist. So I don’t think the Oscar helped. However, with The Cave I feel like I had power because my country needs help and it needs any voice to help tell what is happening there, and bringing a different label that nobody outside of Syria will understand, and my ambition was to make people better understand, to help make a change in how people look at Syria.

The hospital is underground

Do you both think the Syrian crisis is being under-reported around the world?
KB: Certain events are being reported, like when the US pulled out and the Turkish troops went into Syria, that was reported. But what is going on right now gets very little attention, and it’s a strategy from the Russian regime, to target any hospital. It’s coming through a little bit, but not enough. They haven’t followed any of the conventional rules of war, because they don’t care.

Did you feel a sense of duty to confront audiences who don’t know much about this, and tell this story?
FF: I think so yes. It’s a responsibility in general. What I was trying to do with The Cave and with Last Men in Aleppo, was to make cinema, not just report on the situation and current affairs, I don’t want to do this, I could make a ton of films with this footage, and it’s a good marketing to do this, it’s the easy way. I wanted to make a film for people who love and understand cinema and make a film in the best way, while also keeping my point of view and opinions. To see this on an artistic level as well as a context level. Like with new-wave cinema in France or Italy, it helps you understand the culture and the arts and social life, and this is cinema that makes us better understand it, to help people connect with the subject and learn something new, to see something new.

These doctors are heroic

Have you kept in touch with many of those from in The Cave?
KB: Everyone, every day. It’s part of making these kind of films, you become family, and we want them to succeed with new things in life, and for them to be safe.

FF: We are in daily conversation with them, they are friends.

Was it ever hard not to intervene? As a documentary filmmaker it is your job to observe, to take a step back and let the camera do the talking, but there must have been times when it difficult not to offer your help?
KB: There were rules.

FF: Yeah there were rules from Dr. Amani, to not touch the victims because they don’t know what kind of weapon was used in the attack. The camera just had to observe, and not interrupt the team from what they were doing, so any movement from the team couldn’t interrupt them. If we wanted to help, we could make mistakes, so yes there was a motivation to help, but we had to leave it to the professionals. But it was hard, these were my fellow citizens and their death in front of me was like my death. It was terrible. To film what it happening to our country and I couldn’t do anything for them, all I could do was put my camera there and try to save their memories and their history and the crimes that have been done against them, and respect them and show the there is someone trying to do something through their stories and bring them to another level and hope people engage and feel involved in their story.

Another Oscar-worthy documentary by Fayyad

So what’s next for you both? Would you be interested in maybe going back to the cave and filming more footage, to make a follow-up piece?
KB: We filmed a lot more than we ended up using and for a while we discussed if we should make a follow-up and call it The Cave 2. But with this material we just made a short film, ten minutes, about what happened after the evacuation. But we are working on a new film.

FF: Yeah, a film about lawyers in Syria, to look into war crimes. It’s like an undercover movie.

Do you ever get scared by working undercover in this way?
FF: Of course I get nervous, but that makes me feel like I’m still a human. But if we are scared of the Syrian regime, we never build a change. We need them to know we are watching, and we are still there. We are not going to stop doing this. If we are scared, we will never get out. We have to keep demonstrating to make a change, even if there are guns shooting at us, snipers, war planes, we can’t stop. That shows you the hope the people have, and this idea will never change.

The Cave is out in cinemas now

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