Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 16, 2019

The Cave

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

This Friday, “The Cave” opens at the Metrograph in NYC at 9pm. Directed by Feras Fayyad, who will be on hand for the Q&A, it tells the story of the main hospital in East Ghouta that was forced to operate below ground in order to escape relentless Russian aerial bombardment. It is focused on three women who chose to work in dangerous conditions and with none of the blandishments a medical profession affords. Their heroism is a reminder that the Syrian revolution brought out the best of the people even if people like Tulsi Gabbard would have you believe that their ambition was to impose sharia law and carry out a new 9/11 attack.

Dr. Amani Ballour is the hospital’s manager. Not only does she have to contend with Russian warplanes, she also to put up with patriarchal attitudes among the men she is serving. Early on, we see her trying to explain that since East Ghouta is under siege, he won’t be able to get the medication his wife needs from the hospital pharmacy. He replies that if it were a man who was managing the hospital, the medication would be available.

“The Cave” was directed by Feras Fayyad, who also directed “Last Men in Aleppo” in 2017, a documentary about the White Helmets that can now be seen on Amazon for $3.99. In my CounterPunch review of that film, I pointed to its value as a corrective to the propaganda offensive mounted by the likes of Max Blumenthal and company:

Despite the bleak situation faced by Syrian rebels and the dead certainty that Assad will remain in power, there are leftists who will greet the release of “Last Men in Aleppo” in the same way they greeted “The White Helmets”–as a propaganda film designed to burnish the reputation of a group serving al-Qaeda’s interests in Syria. In articles by Vanessa Beeley, Rania Khalek, Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, you get the same talking points that you get in RT.com. The White Helmets are creatures of the USA and Britain designed to make Assad look bad, just like those “false flag” sarin gas attacks.

Seeing “The Cave” can be a wrenching experience since so much of it is devoted to the suffering of people, most of them children, who are brought into the hospital for emergency treatment. We see the three female doctors working under impossible conditions as the roar of Russian jets penetrates to the underground hospital they serve.

Unlike other documentary filmmakers, Fayyad’s lived experience made him uniquely positioned to capture the human drama of first responders in Aleppo and female physicians in East Ghouta. Like them, he was part of the most powerful revolutionary upsurge of the 21st century. If any proof was needed of the threat it posed to the rich and the powerful, it is the scorched earth policy of Assad and his Russian allies that shows the need for throttling the infant in the cradle.

In March 2011, Bashar al-Assad began cracking down on the country’s nascent pro-democracy movement. Because he had made a film about an exiled Syrian poet, Fayyad was arrested, imprisoned and tortured for 15 months. The dictatorship not only jailed protestors but anyone seen as even slightly sympathetic to their cause.

Fayyad was an eye-witness to the savagery of Syrian prisons. “One of the things that you heard all the time was the torture of women and children. And women would be tortured mostly because they were women. The regime was using women as tools of war, to intimidate and attack its opponents. I came out of prison destroyed, angry. As a male growing up in a family of strong women, this was very personal for me. I felt that someday I had to use my voice as a filmmaker to speak out.”

Since East Ghouta was under siege, Fayyad was forced to recruit a film team that would work under his direction from afar. Filmed in East Ghouta between 2016 and 2018, when a regime chemical attack precipitated an exodus to Idlib by the doctors and their patients, “The Cave” makes the audience feel close to claustrophobic and frightening underground environment. The primary subjects of the film rarely venture to the surface, where the risk of being killed by a Russian warplane is very high.

Most of their lives is spent in artificially lit rooms with cellphones the primary connection to the outside world, including Dr. Amani’s poignant phone calls to her father. By showing both their harrowing experiences as emergency room attending physicians and their quotidian existence preparing meals, celebrating birthdays (there is no cake, only popcorn) and trading friendly jibes, we can connect with them as complex characters. Fayyad says, “Of course, the bombings and terrible events that happen are powerful and important to capture. But I also wanted to shine a light on the small, quiet details of each day – things that at first glance may seem unimportant but that, when looked at with more care, are actually the things that make us human.  That enable us to survive.”


  1. This is one of the very few films reviewed on this blog which I would like to see, definitely reminds of Aleppo Voices from the Dark from 2013. There is however a question that I have to make to mr Proyect, although I do agree with most of the things he has said about Syria. As it has been stated by himself on this blog, in the ’80s, just like the rest of the left in the US, he was a staunch supporter of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the regime that the Soviets were trying to keep in power there, to a degree that this was a litmus test for him in order to determine who was a true progressive and who was not, just as now is Syria for him a litmus test for determining who is a progressive and who is not. Has mr Proyect ever wondered whether his stance on Syria has had, subconsciously at least, anything to do with his stance on Afghanistan in the ’80s?

    Comment by Maximilian1979 — October 20, 2019 @ 12:05 pm

  2. Honestly, I don’t remember supporting the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. What I can tell you is that I supported the Serb Republic against NATO during the war in Kosovo, a position generally not held by people who agree with me on Syria. However, what really made up my mind on these kinds of questions was the war on Chechnya. I saw it as a naked aggression against a small and weak nation that had no justification.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 20, 2019 @ 1:51 pm

  3. I have a very clear recollection of that statement made here regarding Afghanistan in the ’80s, simply not on which post/posts and there is of course a possibility that I am mistaken. There are however two points I have to make as a historian by training regarding some other things I have read on this blog, although I understand that there is a very specific ideology behind it and historical events are interpreted according to this ideology. First, a very common complaint from the side of the left regarding the USSR’s stance during the Second Indochina War dating back to the ’60s and repeatedly stated here, is about the USSR giving aid to North Vietnam by “the eyedropper” and not supplying anti aircraft weapons capable of downing B-52s. This claim seems to ingnore the fact that both China and the USSR not only supplied plenty of aid but had also large numbers of troops stationed in North Vietnam duting the war, and at least when it comes to the Soviet ones they primarily served in air defence units and so took direct part in combat against raids by US aircraft, with some of them being killed in the process. As for the B-52’s for most of the war they were used exclusively against targets in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, that is low-risk areas, and were used against North Vietnam only during operation Linebacker 2 in December 1972, and then several of them were shot down by Soviet supplied North Vietnamese SAM batteries, perfectly state-of-the art for their time.
    The other observation has to do with a claim regarding Afghanistan in the ’80s, frequently mentioned by the “Blowback Theory” supporters, about Reagan having said that the mujahideen being the equivalent of the US “founding fathers”, something which Reagan said about the contras in Nicaragua, not the mujahideen.

    Comment by Maximilian1979 — October 21, 2019 @ 11:00 am

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