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Return to Homs: Inside Syria’s Civil War

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series, click here.)

By Alexander Hobbs

Return to Homs, a documentary by Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki, made its U.S. debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. I had the privilege of viewing the film at a private screening, hosted by The Open Society Foundation Wednesday evening in New York.

Filmed between 2011 and 2013 in the city of Homs, Syria, the movie documents the evolution of Syria's conflict from peaceful street demonstrations into deleterious civil war. The director takes us through each escalating stage of conflict: the initial gatherings of the disenchanted, the government firing on protesters, citizens arming themselves to defend their protests, the army responding with even more violence, and finally, the descent into total war. At the same time, the audience witnesses how the young men caught in the crossfire transform from citizens into armed soldiers in just two short years.

Though Return to Homs documents a country's civil war, it also poignantly tells the story of one young man, Abdul Basset. When the audience first encounters Basset, he is a 19-year-old goalkeeper for the Syrian national team. As his country gets swept in conflict, he sets his soccer career to lead protesters in anti-government songs on the streets of Homs. His transformation is all engrossing for an audience sitting what feels like worlds away.

The most striking aspect of the film is its ability to captures the organic nature of the Syrian conflict’s transformation from peace to violence. Speaking to the audience after the showing, Orwa Nyrabia, one of the film's producers and cinematographers, said that he and his partners had no idea what to expect when they arrived in Homs. They just turned their cameras on, and the war unfolded around them. Their approach allowed the director to construct a narrative from the perspective of the men and women caught in the midst of the action. We are allowed to witness the process that pulls Basset and his friend deeper into the violence and away from their previously normal lives. In this way the film serves more as epic poetry than as documentary: a narrative of actions undertaken that offers no judgments and no explanations, serving only as a testament to the actions so that we the viewer may pass our own judgments.

After the city became too dangerous for the filmmakers to return to themselves, they enlisted “media activists” to film the action on handheld cameras. Their untrained eyes allow us to witness the raw experiences and candid moments of the men the Syrian government has labeled terrorists. In one such scene, a group of men, all of whom appear to be no older than 26, stand together in a huddle while Basset leads them in song. Behind them, their comrade occasionally fires his sniper rifle through a hole in the wall. It is rare moments like these in which the film abounds privileged glimpses into the private lives of citizen-soldiers.

The film is subsequently filled with explosions, gunshots, and screams, just as one would expect from any war documentary. However, the most prominent aural experience of the film is not the sound of violence, but the unexpected sound of song. Basset, the film’s protagonist, sings constantly—his songs acting as both a window into his own soul and as a mirror onto the conflict. Like Basset himself, his singing transforms over the course of the film, from his first idealistic songs imploring the army to open their eyes and not shoot their brothers, into his final lament for the martyrs, asking the mothers not to be sad for their dead sons because they have won eternal glory.  

The film humanizes the Syrian conflict in such a way that it is impossible not to identify and sympathize with its heroes. These are not terrorists, minions of Al Qaeda, or Saudi puppets. These are men, so readily identifiable that it is impossible not to imagine myself in the conflict as I watch. They are my age —they have my same hopes and desires. They are just a groups of friends caught in the grips of an unfortunate fate who will not sit idly by while their families are killed and their neighborhoods destroyed. They are enacting the timeless story of the hero, rising up beyond the quotidian experiences of their private lives, becoming players in an epic saga—the outcome of which will change the course of history. They are gambling with their lives to discover their personal fates, and the fate. It is a classical tableaux any viewer is inclined to connect to. As a witness to his story, I ask myself would I have as much courage as Basset and his friends?

We do not and cannot know whether or not Basset succeeds as the film ends without the completion of his story. The last shot is of Basset in the back of a truck with his comrades, heading back into Homs singing his songs, just as when we first encountered him. Like the outcome of the war itself, Basset’s fate remains hidden from the viewer. Watching Basset return to Homs, I was struck by the enormity of his undertaking. He is one man setting off with his friends to bring down a regime, filled with an infinite hope for the future. At the end of the film I asked myself, is Basset a hero or a man consumed by a death-drive, desperately seeking martyrdom? I passed my own judgment; the film does not. You, the viewer must pass your own. I will say however, that as long as there are Bassets amidst the civil war, the world cannot give up on Syria. As long as there are Bassets, we will find a strong ally in the fight of freedom against oppression.   

Return to Homs by Talal Derki is one of the most remarkable films I have ever seen. See it if you have the chance.

*****

*****

Alexander Hobbs is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Movie trailer and stills courtesy of IDFA

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