Oscar nomination highlights Syrians’ plight—and one medic’s courageous work

Video highlights from The Cave

Doctor who ran underground hospital hopes academy award will expose atrocities she witnessed during the Syrian civil war.

Dr. Amani Ballour will make her way to the biggest party in Hollywood this Sunday, but the Syrian doctor shrugged when she admitted that she doesn’t have a red carpet outfit yet for the Academy Awards. Even though Ballour is featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Cave, she’s more interested in drawing attention to the crisis in Syria.

The National Geographic documentary “is our testimony of the crimes against humanity,” Ballour said Sunday, shortly after arriving in the United States. “This is our truth of what happened and what is still happening. All the people around the world know the Oscars. They will see this film and they will know the truth.”

In The Cave, director Feras Fayyad and producers Kirstine Barfod and Sigrid Dyekjær followed the young doctor and her staff for more than two years as they treated as many as 5,000 patients a month in a makeshift hospital dug deep into the earth during the Syrian civil war. While her hometown of Eastern Ghouta was under siege and bombardment, it fell to Ballour, the first female head of a Syrian hospital, to decide how to ration their dwindling food, supplies, and medicine. (Ballour saved thousands in her underground Syrian hospital. Here's how.)

The Cave | Premieres March 8 on National Geographic 

For more than eight years, Syria has been devestated under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It is estimated that the war has killed more than 380,000 people and injured upwards of two million people.

“I saw the children starving, malnourished with too many infections and no medicine,” Ballour said. “I was suffering. I saw them all the time and I couldn’t help them.” The film documents some of the most harrowing atrocities of the war, including a chemical attack in 2013 that killed 1,400 people. Many of the victims were children.

Like thousands impacted by Syria’s war, Ballour fled to Turkey in 2018. In the two years since Ballour was forced to leave Eastern Ghouta, she married, has been featured in an internationally-acclaimed film, started a foundation, and is now traveling the world.

After the longest flight of her life, Ballour, now 32, arrived in the U.S. for the first time on Sunday to begin a week-long tour from New York to Los Angeles to raise awareness about The Cave and the environment that inspired it. Afterwards, she’ll meet with colleagues at the Syrian American Medical Society conference in Florida to work on her latest project—one that combines her past and the film’s success—so she can continue aiding those in need. Ballour has created Al Amal, or Hope in Arabic, an organization that will help women in conflict zones.

“I wanted to support children because I like children. But you can’t support children without supporting women.” The crisis continues for many.

In Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria, fighting has recently intensified and left 520,000 people forcibly displaced since December 2019. According to the United Nations, at least 53 health facilities have shuttered since the New Year.

Ballour can relate to women living under these conditions. With Al Amal, she hopes she can help them pursue an education, search for jobs, and eventually find independence. It’s support Ballour could have used while running the hospital.

Inspired by her work as a medic during the siege in Eastern Ghouta, Ballour has created a foundation to aid women in conflict zones. The organization Al Amal, or Hope in Arabic, will help women find jobs, support their families, and establish their independence. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DOCUMENTARY FILMS

“I needed support when I was there,” Ballour said. “I was the first woman to be manager of the hospital and all the people criticized me and talked about me. I was all the time angry and frustrated and tried to prove to them that I can do it and I can be here. But now I can support other women. I am strong now. I feel I am strong because a lot of people see this film and they know me and they believe in me.”

While Ballour hopes people will learn about the atrocities in Syria from watching the film, she herself has only been able to watch The Cave once. Revisiting the front line reminds her of how far removed she is from the work of saving lives.

“I cried when I watched it because we were happy when we were there in spite of the bombing and starvation,” Ballour said. “We were helping people. We were doing important things and I feel happy and satisfied that I did that. But when I’m out of Syria and know that it’s still happening, that’s hard for me.”

The 90-minute film has received awards throughout its film festival tour. The Cave won the Audience Award at the Camden International Film Festival and the best writing award at the International Documentary Association’s Documentary Awards. This weekend the team is up for their most prestigious nomination yet: an Oscar for feature documentary at the 92nd Academy Awards. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—all 9,000 of them, according to some estimates—have until February 4 to cast their vote. The members, all professionals in the film industry, will vote for their favorite movie in each category.

Against the odds, many members of the medical team and documentary crew will be in Los Angeles for the awards. Fayyad, who was granted a three-month visa in September, was denied a new visa by the U.S. embassy in Denmark when he applied in December. The embassy agent explained that he was denied because of the travel ban instituted by executive order, reports Deadline. The ban virtually blocks Syrian citizens, along with citizens from 12 other countries, from entering the U.S. The rejection prevented Fayyad from receiving the best writing award and from judging at the Sundance Film Festival. It also threatened to keep him from the Oscars this weekend.

The Cave director Feras Fayyad, pictured filming in Idlib, Syria, was denied a visa to enter the United States in December. With help from the filmmaking community, Fayyad arrived in the United States in time for the 92nd Academy Awards. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DOCUMENTARY FILMS

In response, the documentary film community sent a letter with more than 800 signatures to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for a visa for Fayyad. “Feras himself is a survivor of torture at the hands of the Syrian regime. He is being denied entry to the U.S. purely because of where he was born. He is being denied a voice to speak to us out of fear,” the letter reads.

With help from the outpouring of support, Fayyad was granted a visa and arrived in the U.S. on January 26, in time for the Oscar nominee luncheon the following day.

For Ballour, deciding to attend the Oscars was easy, but securing her visa was another matter. “The [U.S.] embassy said that, ‘Because you are from Syria we should deny your visa. But because you have the invitations, we will see.’” Two days later, she received a call. The embassy granted her a visa based on the strength of her recommendations from National Geographic, which presented the documentary, and from doctors with the Syrian American Medical Society.

Ballour found the visa bittersweet since she couldn’t secure one for her husband. If they had applied together, Ballour thinks they would have been denied. To her surprise however, several of her former co-workers secured visas and will meet her in Los Angeles. The group hasn’t seen each other since the film was in production.

Fayyad, who in 2018 was nominated for an academy award for Last Men in Aleppo, said his mother and the challenges she faced as a woman in Syria inspired The Cave. The project began with filming seven hospitals. He says it did not take long to discover that Dr. Ballour’s work would be the most effective way to demonstrate the crimes against humanity happening in Syria while also showing the strength and resilience of the people.

“When I met her she was inspiring, she was a fighter, she was very strong” Fayyad says. “I grew up in a big family, seven sisters, 14 aunts. My mother is a Kurdish. Already I’d been seeing the story of women and injustice in my society. I felt a responsibility to do something. I felt sorry about the story told to me by my mother.”

As Ballour travels around the world, she mourns the atrocities still occurring. “The camps are crowded, people don’t know where to go,” Ballour said. “They have nothing, no food, no healthcare, no education for the children.” PHOTOGRAPH BY ESLAH ATTAR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

By sending three cinematographers to follow Ballour for two years, Fayyad captured the doctor’s day-to-day challenges. The film itself, however, created its own challenges for Ballour.

“When people saw the cameras follow me, they talked a lot. We have a culture against women, that women should stay at home, get married, and have children,” Ballour said. “So it was not easy for all of Syria to see me.“

Her role in the film has elevated her profile, which puts her at risk. “It was very dangerous to be in Syria and to be known,” she said.

Today, her anxiety and fear lingers. “I’m in safe places, but I don’t feel safe,” said Ballour from a New York City hotel. “I don’t feel afraid, but safeness is a special feeling inside of you. It doesn’t depend entirely on the place. I don’t feel safe, no, I feel stressed all the time.

“I think a lot about what happened and what’s happening now. I will feel safe when they stop bombing and people come back to their homes and when everyone is freed.”

In the meantime, she and her husband have applied for asylum in Canada where they hope to continue their education and seek new opportunities.

Regardless of what happens, the regime and Russia can’t stop the truth now, Ballour said. With the film’s release, she knows that the record has been set straight. Even if she is silenced, “they can’t kill the truth.” An Oscar though, she hesitantly hopes, might bring some kind of change to her beloved homeland. That, to her, would be the real win.

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