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And the Oscar Goes to… A Simplified Story of Syria’s Civil War

Syrian doctors in the OR
National Geographic
Dr. Amani Ballour, working in an underground hospital operating room in Eastern Ghouta, Syria, in a scene from the documentary The Cave

Syria’s unfinished civil war may be the most amply documented conflict in history. Much of it has been broadcast live, with participants and observers posting breathless, hand-held footage from the first ecstatic protests in 2011 to the many lurid horrors that came afterward. Yet this tsunami of images seems often to obscure rather than clarify a complex war with many sides. The fact that photos and video clips have been so often adopted and brandished by Syrian partisans in defense of their warring narratives, which contend both online and in the streets, has further numbed our senses. “I was there,” all these witnesses seem to shout. Whose eyes and ears to trust?

Two films about the Syrian war are among the five nominated in the documentary category for an academy award this year. One of them, For Sama, directed by Waad al-Kateab, has already won awards in the UK, where it became the most-nominated documentary in the history of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards. The other is The Cave, directed by Feras Fayyad, whose 2017 Last Men in Aleppo was nominated for an Oscar in 2018. The two films are curiously similar in form. Both revolve around a woman who insists on remaining in a besieged opposition enclave (Aleppo in one case, Eastern Ghouta in the other). Both take place mostly in claustrophobic trauma wards where doctors struggle to save the victims of the Assad regime’s bombing campaign.

These films are raw and painful to watch; they also contain scenes of arresting intimacy. But they may owe some of their resonance in the US to the way they cater, knowingly or not, to some of Hollywood’s favored formulae. Both films chronicle the struggles of an independent young woman who chafes against the restrictions of a male-dominated society. There are good and bad guys: an irredeemably evil regime maiming helpless civilians and the heroic doctors who treat them. So we see no rebel fighters, in either film; and while both protagonists complain in passing about religious extremism, we see little evidence of it apart from women in black veils.

It is hard to blame the subjects of the two films for this; they were just trying to survive in a place where venturing into the streets (or even criticizing one’s own side too loudly) could be deadly. The Cave is an especially vivid evocation of this reality, set largely in a purpose-built underground medical clinic connected to the surface by dim, cloacal tunnels. There is no question that both films’ principal theme—the large-scale indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas (and hospitals) by both the Assad regime and its Russian ally—is an appalling war crime and one of the war’s central realities. Still, it would be a shame if the Oscar publicity machine were to turn either of these films, with their necessarily partial windows onto Syria’s agony, into a broader parable about the war’s political meaning.

“In rebel-held Aleppo we lived in a free country,” Waad al-Kateab tells the camera at one point in For Sama. The film jumps backward and forward in time, suggesting a natural progression from the first peaceful protesters of 2011 to the last stand of that city’s eastern enclave under the Assad regime’s bombs in late 2016. Near the end of the siege, when al-Kateab and her husband are joining the final exodus from the city, she addresses her baby daughter, Sama, who was born in East Aleppo during the siege: “I want you to know that we fought for the most important cause of all. So that you and your children would not have to live as we lived. Everything we did was for you.”

Watching this film, you do not see the militias fighting for “free Aleppo,” whose members tortured prisoners not far from where al-Kateab and her husband were recording their daily lives as civilians caught up in the conflict. The same happened in Eastern Ghouta, the Damascus suburb where The Cave was filmed. These fighters—many of them jihadists—hoarded food while civilians starved, murdered those suspected of disloyalty, and waged internecine gun battles in the streets. Like the Assad regime, they depended on foreign backers for guns and money.

In early 2017, after the Assad regime had recaptured East Aleppo and evacuated its formerly rebel-held enclave, I walked through the burnt-out ruins of the Aleppo Eye Hospital, where Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, had had its headquarters. In the fetid, trash-strewn basement was a room with a sign marking it as a women’s prison, and some graffiti by an inmate on the wall (“they ask us to do justly and they neglect it themselves”). Later, I interviewed one of the women who had been held there, a gaunt, harrowed mother of three who’d been held captive for almost four years. In the hospital, her jailers beat and cursed her and called her an infidel, she told me.

Al-Kateab briefly acknowledges that Islamist extremists were “trying to take over the revolution,” before observing that the Assad regime’s behavior was far worse. The protagonist of The Cave, a pediatrician and hospital administrator named Amani Ballour, makes similar dismissive comments about intolerant Muslims. But these brief comments elide a darker reality: both women were living in areas that were defended by brutal Islamist gangs. Whatever one may think or feel about Dr. Ballour, or about al-Kateab and her husband, also a brave doctor, who treated victims to the very end, Aleppo was not a free or just place under the rebels. Nor was Eastern Ghouta.

Among the many things one does not see in these films are the Syrians on the other side. There, the suffering was different—there were no barrel bombs—but often equally brutal. In regime-held Aleppo in 2017, I met a man who had lost forty-five male members of his extended family. So many regime soldiers, the vast majority of them conscripts, have been killed that you scarcely see any young men in Damascus.

Even the sparks of hope that preceded the war—the dream of revolution that Sama’s parents risked her life for—is more complicated and divisive than it seems in these films. Most of Aleppo, for instance, did not want the revolution. When other Syrian cities erupted in revolt in 2011, Aleppo stayed quiet. It was a commercial town, celebrated for its maze of medieval markets, and most local people seemed unwilling to risk a bloody confrontation with the regime. The revolt was imposed from outside in 2012, when an Islamist group from the countryside called Liwa al-Tawhid took much of the city by storm.

After that, Aleppo was divided in two. Survival—even for civilians—often depended on adherence to fiercely exclusive narratives of either the rebels or the regime; traitors would be shot. Very little of Aleppo’s complex reality made it past the city gates. The regime had its own media, now widely echoed on RT, Russia’s state broadcaster, on which Kremlin stooges cast the entire Syrian rebellion as a terrorist plot. But the rebel narrative had far more influence in the West, and that is how the myth of a virtuous rebel enclave became so powerful.

The Cave and For Sama may also strike a nerve with US audiences because they flatter a penitential strain among many American liberals: the belief that what happened in Syria is a stain on the Western conscience. “I cannot believe the world allowed this to happen,” al-Kateab tells the camera. It is perfectly natural for Syrians, who were desperate for help from any side, to talk like this. But the way Americans heard it often amounted to a kind of narcissism, a belief that whatever was happening out there was a result of our own failure to intervene decisively. Perhaps America could have played a better role. It seems equally possible that the world—America included—was far too involved in what happened in Syria, and that foreign guns and money have only prolonged the country’s suffering.   

The full truth about Syria—perhaps about any civil war—is very hard for the participants to bear. Perhaps that is why so many Syrians adhere to a fable that tends to absolve their own side. I know regime supporters who adhere to their own comforting myths: that the uprising was crafted by terrorists from the start; that Assad had to take strong measures to save the country.

The Cave and For Sama are remarkable documentaries and important contributions to a collective portrait of the Syrian tragedy. But it is important to remember that they are fragments, glimpses of a terrible war in which no side has a claim to righteousness.

"For Sama" director filming ruins in Aleppo, Syria, 2016
Waad al-Kateab/PBS Distribution
For Sama’s co-director Waad al-Kateab filming the ruins of a building destroyed by bombing in besieged East Aleppo, Syria, October 2016