Esin Erdoğan | 30 June 2021
Meeting a refugee is a different experience. It can be a shaking reality check for some and for others an inspiration to do more in life. Many of the definitions such as having a job, coming home, coming home to your family, stress of daily life, difficulties at work, conflicts with friends is different when you listen to a refugee.
For many, it is unimaginable to be in a position to leave your country because it is the only way to save your life. Mohammed Eyad is one of some four million persons in need of international protection living in Turkey. Hearing his story means not only listening to his story but also seeing this world through the eyes of hundreds of thousands of refugees whose lives were turned upside down by conflict.
Mohammed’s camera isn’t one set of eyes; it is the collective experience of people whose eyes experienced the terrors of war, conflict and displacement. At the same time, it is the same set of eyes who witnessed solidarity, perseverance and courage of those who dare to look the dark realities of life in the eye, and grab it by its horns. Mohammed is a cinematographer. More specifically, he is the cinematographer of the documentary The Cave, which earned him the prestigious Emmy Award for “Outstanding Cinematography for A Nonfiction Program” of 2020.
Before he became an esteemed cinematographer, Mohammed was an avid photographer. He enjoyed taking pictures of his surroundings and his family. His hobby turned into a deeper passion and an expression of activism when the conflict began in Syria in 2011. As a high-school student then, Mohammed started taking pictures of the escalation in Syria. “My hobby turned into my occupation because I wanted to show the world what was happening in Syria. I was thinking that what the media was portraying at that time wasn’t enough, so I took it upon myself to show what was really going on”, he says.
After his family parted in search of safety, Mohammed stayed put and met many activists. The war had already started in the countryside. He continued documenting the change in his surroundings. For the first few years of the conflict, he lived in Eastern Ghouta, where civilians were banned from entering or leaving. There, Mohammed had perhaps the first jarring experience of the ongoing war. While trying to document, Mohammed says they were caught in an attack which left him unconscious and his surroundings in ruins. Mohammed and his friends had to leave in order to remain safe. “It was really hard to take photos in that environment. We tried to capture the essence of what was going on, but it was a really challenging and long process for us,” he recalls.
When asked about why he switched to cinematography from photography, Mohammed notes that the news of the conflict was reported as ‘everyday news’, and not everyone was paying attention to what was going on. “Then we heard about some artistic and cinematic works that the world noticed, and the people talked about. These works narrated the real picture to a larger audience. That’s why we thought about a documentary film to portray the events.”
The Cave documentary reveals the horrific true story of a Syrian underground hospital and a team of civilians and medical professionals led by women who risk their lives to provide medical care to the trapped locals. The movie follows the 30-year-old Dr. Amani Ballour, who became the manager of a team of 130 medical practitioners at the secret hospital serving 400,000 civilians in Ghouta from 2012 to 2018.
Mohammed worked on filming the documentary with two other photographers in Ghouta, Ammar Suleiman and Muhammad Khair al-Shami. “My fellow photographer, Suleiman, had an injury in his leg that led to its amputation as a result of the bombing, and I was slightly injured too as our home and office were bombed during our work.” In talking about his experience of filming for documentary, Mohammed’s recollection is one that still haunts him: “Until now I cannot forget the details of our lives during the siege, under bombardment and fire. The sounds of warplanes, explosions and grenades are still ringing in my ears. The scenes of the wounded, the injured and the children in the hospital are imprinted in my mind. Sometimes I would stop filming and just stand aside to detach myself from the horror of the scene.” Besides its success and the accolade it brought, Mohammed underlines strongly that The Cave is not just a documentary; it is the daily lives of 400,000 of Eastern Ghouta: “Although we may call it a documentary, it is the picture of how life was like for those people every day, it is their reality. My mission and message are to portray the truth, the reality. I aim to make people’s voices heard, and their suffering acknowledged.”
Mohammed is now a student in Turkey, having arrived in 2018. Despite having witnessed the harsh reality of war and trauma, he stresses that they decided to leave only when there was no other option to pursue. Having reached safety, Mohammed decided to continue his education which was interrupted by the conflict. “I care about my education, and Turkey was a good option. It was difficult at first, trying to adapt to the culture and the language, but I got used to it in time. I like being here, and I am happy to be here. İstanbul is a special city”, he adds.
Besides bettering himself in his art and completing his education, continuing to portray what’s happening in Syria still remains high on Mohammed’s agenda. Remembering that the conflict in Syria has been going on for over a decade and having witnessed seven years of it in person, Mohammed tells his fellow Syrians to have hope still: Hope for reuniting with their homes and loved ones. Hope for rebuilding their country and making it a better place. “We have paid a heavy price, but yet we still insist on our demands for freedom and dignity”, stresses Mohammed.
The Cave is a striking narrative in portraying how and why conflict and trauma drive people to seek refuge. The documentary also underlines the bravery of women and the resilience of health workers, which is even more meaningful at a time when humanity’s limits are tested to its core with the ongoing pandemic.
For more information on The Cave, please visit: https://films.nationalgeographic.com/the-cave