2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Issues of women’s rights have long been a subject of heated debate in the Arab world. While situations vary considerably throughout the region, women are still fighting against culturally and religiously imposed restrictions rarely faced by their counterparts in the rest of the world. At TIFF 2019, a pair of films stand out in this regard, in the form of the documentary, “The Cave,” and the narrative feature, “Adam.” Though set in drastically different environments, both highlight issues surrounding women’s rights through affecting stories about the power of female solidarity.
Following up on his award-winning debut “Last Men in Aleppo,” Feras Fayyad returns to the scene of the Syrian Civil War for another devastating documentary about its unsung heroes. In “The Cave,” a team of doctors work tirelessly in an secret, underground hospital to treat the endless victims of the ongoing war above. Predominantly made up of female doctors, Fayyad takes us into their world through the perspective of Dr. Amani, their young but courageous leader. Despite their dire circumstances, Amani still faces pushback due to misogynistic beliefs that a woman cannot hold such leadership positions. Against the odds, she and her fellow women remain dedicated to their cause, though their world continues to fall apart around them.
Depicting the chaos of war with visceral intensity, “The Cave” powerfully rejects the common notion that big budget spectacles are the only films requiring the full cinema experience. Jaw-dropping from the very first frame, Fayyad vividly captures the melee of bombs, accompanied by booming sound design which effectively forms the basis of the film’s soundtrack. From a technical standpoint, it immediately becomes clear that “The Cave” is one of the most accomplished pieces of non-fiction filmmaking of the year.
As “The Cave” swiftly shifts focus to the titular hospital, Fayyad never loses sight of the human story at its heart. And what he reveals is just as sobering as the vast overhead shots of ruins as far as the eye can see. Within minutes of our introduction to the heroic Dr. Amani, we see men challenging her authority and claiming that “women should be in the home.” Meanwhile, the handheld camera gives viewers an intimate look at her team’s efforts to save lives with meager supplies, infuriatingly reminding us of the patriarchy’s firm grip on this society.
This balance between inspiring heroism and the harsh reality of a broken society is what makes “The Cave” so effective. Though it celebrates the positive work being done by the hospital and offers a few lighter moments involving food, music and humor, Fayyad refrains from generating faux optimism. As the precarious situation at the hospital continues to deteriorate, Dr. Amani’s vulnerability is utterly relatable.
Fayyad crafts “The Cave” with the bravado of a Hollywood franchise director, but its central hero is far from invincible. Even more powerful than Dr. Amani’s selfless work are the quieter scenes where we learn of her self-doubt, disillusionment and despair. Amidst its inspiring message of female empowerment, the lasting images of “The Cave” are those of displaced families and a city bombarded to the point of virtual collapse.
“The Cave” is distributed by National Geographic Documentary Films.
Maryam Touzani’s directorial debut follows two Moroccan women who come together by chance in Casablanca, a city which often treats them as second class citizens. Samia (Nessrine Erradi) is a pregnant young woman who has been left homeless for breaking the taboo of having a child out of wedlock. Abla (Lubna Azabal) is a widowed woman who still mourns the untimely loss of her husband, after social customs prevented her from properly grieving and making peace with his sudden death. When Samia arrives at Abla’s door, Abla is struggling to make ends meet at her small bakery. After initial hesitation, Abla welcomes the young woman into the lives of her and her young daughter. Together, they form a bond that will affect all of them for the better.
Made in the tradition of classic neorealist dramas, “Adam” takes a simple premise and builds a rich exploration of its characters and their society. As such, it provides a fantastic showcase for Touzani and her two lead actresses. As the unflappable Abla, Lubna Azabal turns in a skillfully measured performance, with every slight smile and sway of her hips speaking volumes to her character’s changing outlook. Meanwhile, Nessrine Erradi puts her heart and soul into her work as Samia, conveying both her vulnerability and unique strength.
As “Adam” charts the slow evolution of friendship between these women, the understated storytelling often feels noticeably lacking in serious conflict. But “Adam” thrives in its small gestures, whether it be the cooking of the traditional Moroccan dish rziza, or the sincere compliments of a sweet courtship. Through close range cinematography and the actresses’ physicality, the film achieves a wonderfully tactile quality. The characters and their world therefore feel as authentic as those captured in documentaries like “The Cave”.
Predictably, Abla and Samia eventually form a happy, makeshift family. But the imminent arrival of Samia’s “bastard” son grants the narrative some tougher edges. As the women open to each other about their fears and frustrations with their lives, the social commentary lends even more gravitas to their bonding. Ultimately, “Adam” resonates through this profound depiction of female solidarity, opening up a necessary dialogue about women in oppressive societies with compelling grace and heartfelt empathy.
“Adam” is the Moroccan submission for the 2019 Oscar for Best International Feature Film.