By Evan Gottesman
On April 8, BAMcinematek screened Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki’s documentary, Return to Homs, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The movie is a forceful journey through the ongoing Syrian Civil War, bringing viewers from the early nonviolent demonstrations into the most brutal stages of the current military confrontation.
“This documentary is a clear witness to what is happening in Syria, the thing that everyone wants to forget,” Derki tells World Policy Journal. Since watching Return to Homs, it has become very difficult to simply forget.
Derki’s documentary primarily follows Abdul Baset Al-Sarout, a 19-year-old star footballer living in the city of Homs at the beginning of the film. Baset quickly becomes involved in anti-government demonstrations when protests against President Assad erupt in 2011. He becomes an icon of the revolution, delivering rousing speeches to enthusiastic audiences of restless Syrian citizens. Baset’s youth, enthusiasm, and charisma may recall the ill-fated student revolutionaries of Les Miserables. Even during his most compelling and optimistic orations, foreknowledge of the war to come makes it is difficult to forget that les Amis de l’ABC met tragic ends.
Derki says that he was surprised when the uprising began in 2011. “I was, like a lot of people, shocked."
Baset lead a crowd in chanting at an early protest.
“Since many years ago, I was in Syria without the power to do anything,” Derki explained. “They follow everyone,” he observed of the government. As a filmmaker, Talal acutely felt the impact of media restrictions. “[The cinema] belonged to the family of Assad."
I asked Derki how he felt about the situation in his country now, four years on.
“We, as Syrians, are disappointed.”
“We are alone,” he lamented. “A lot of people left the country; the lawyers, the doctors.”
But Baset stays in Syria. Eventually, the young footballer-turned-revolutionary orator trades his microphone for a Kalashnikov. The war comes to Homs and it is brutal.
A government tank drives through the ruins of Homs.
“Nobody stopped Assad bombing the cities,” Talal reflects. “He bombed every day.” Indeed, once the war begins, there is little relief from the crack of gunfire and the pounding of missiles and artillery shells. The relentless explosions serve as a constant reminder of the scale of the destruction ongoing in Syria.
Perhaps what is most notable about the film’s coverage of the war is its lack of political context. The regime’s alliance with Iran receives only passing mention, and other relevant foreign actors like the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Russia are all but ignored. Talk of diplomatic maneuvers and policy strategies is absent. There is no need for the (often sanitized) language of an academic discussion on international relations. No matter what deals are struck or policies concocted in Washington, Moscow, and Tehran, the result for the film’s subjects is the same: innocent people die.
“We don’t have anything except getting killed or arrested,” Derki quipped.
Talal Derki (second from left) accepts the George Polk Documentary Award for Return to Homs at Long Island University.
The world of Return to Homs is so insular that even the government soldiers that Baset and his comrades are fighting against are rarely seen. Assad’s troops are invisible, holed up in sniper nests, rubble, and ruined buildings. People seemingly drop dead out of nowhere, their killers hidden out of view. The fighter jets and the helicopters fly out of sight, too high for the characters to spot them. Throughout the film, Homs slowly crumbles around Baset and his comrades as if by some natural force of erosion. It is a situation wholly beyond their control.
The audience might never guess based on this presentation of the Syrian conflict, but Talal Derki refuses to accept his country’s disintegration as a fait accompli.
“We still believe,” he said, “that one day peace will come to our country.”
Return to Homs has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, July 20, 2015 at 10 p.m. (check local listings) on the POV (Point of View) series on PBS.
Evan Gottesman is an editorial assistant for World Policy Journal.
[Photos courtesy of American Documentary, Inc.]