New Hampshire Film Festival: A Nor’easter Drives Everyone to ‘The Cave’

New Hampshire Film Festival: The 19th annual New Hampshire Film Festival arrived in the wake of a mighty nor’easter that brought high winds and rain to the region. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to be welcomed into New England, despite the terrifying turbulence we experienced landing at Boston Logan International Airport. As winds gushed as high as 90 miles per hour, the powerful autumn storm stretched from Massachusetts through Maine, leaving hundreds of thousands of locals without power.

The New Hampshire Film Festival is a non-profit, located in the rustic, picturesque town of Portsmouth. Their agenda focuses on providing a spotlight for new and emerging filmmakers, and inspiring audiences with thought-provoking cinema, both domestic and international.

This year, the festival kicked things off by awarding their Van Mcleod Award — an annual honor given to those who have made a significant contribution to the film industry — to Executive Producer Matt Renner. Renner, a two-time Emmy-winner and the VP of Production for National Geographic Partners, has executive produced several high profile documentaries. His credits include “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” “LA 92,” and the Academy Award winner, Free Solo.” This year, he has Feras Fayyad’s “The Cave,” which — following his acceptance of the Van Mcleod Award — kicked things off here at the festival.

Director Feras Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo” was nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 2017, and was the first of what will be a three-part anthology on the Syrian Civil War. His new film, “The Cave,” is the second installment in the trilogy. The film premiered at Toronto, where it won the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary.

The Cave” is a story of survival set amidst the despair of the war-torn region of Al Ghouta, Syria, a small community on the outskirts of Damascus. From April 2013 to April of 2018, daily bomb raids by the Syrian Regime of Bashar al-Assad and their Russian allies became routine for the people who live here. While millions fled, Fayyad’s feature is a portrait of those who selflessly stayed behind to help.

Underneath the village, a network of tunnels and basements connects a subterranean hospital, where doctors — many of whom are students or volunteers — work to help those injured in the crisis. We follow our main protagonist, Dr. Amani Ballour, as she works tirelessly to manage the hospital. She not only must work with limited resources — both medical supplies and food for her staff — but also faces the prejudices of her culture, where male peers feel she should not hold her position due to her gender. As the Syrians and Russians burn everything on the surface, their bombs get closer and closer to the cave, increasing the despair and dire calamity of the situation.

Fayyad dials up the terror through the use of thunderous sound. From the booming of the warplanes that wreak havoc in the skies above, to the ground-shaking explosions of the missiles destroying the city, to the shrieking children battered and torn from shrapnel and debris, every sound is amplified for our awareness. This vociferous approach leaves you feeling trapped in the cave as a helpless bystander.

Where Fayyad’s film succeeds so well is his ability to humanize an inhumane realm. The hospital workers’ lives are a vicious cycle of bombings and caring for the wounded. But they have passions and interests just like anyone else in the world. In tender, intimate scenes, Fayyad shows us their passion for classical music, chocolate, pizza, and the desire to normalize this life by throwing Dr. Amani a surprise 30th birthday party. By inviting us into these delicate moments, he adds to the gravity of the situation when the switch is flipped and we fall back into disarray. These heroes are just people, and they have their limits. They question their god. They feel the anguish and despair when all they see is the endless rhythm of death, famine, and destruction, and they are left to question if what they are doing is even making a difference, a feeling that persists throughout the duration of the film.

“The Cave” is a vivid and intense nightmare. Fayyad’s brutal, boots-on-the-ground view of the repetitive bombings that besiege the people of Al Ghouta is an agonizing and alarming watch. Those who were entrenched in Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo” will want to seek this one out as well.

“The Cave” is produced by National Geographic Documentary Films and is opening in limited release this weekend.

GRADE: (★½)

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