The director of a Syrian documentary that scooped a top prize at the Sundance film festival says his film pays tribute to the “steadfastness” of the besieged city of Homs.
The movie “Return to Homs” was awarded the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at the prestigious US film festival last week, much to director Talal Derki’s delight.
His film tracks the evolution of the Syrian uprising from peaceful protests into an entrenched, brutal war that has killed more than 130,000 people.
“Homs was nicknamed the capital of the revolution because of the strength of the protests and the peaceful movement there,” Derki told AFP.
Derki was born in Damascus in 1977, but decided to focus on Homs, Syria’s third city, because it was a magnet for activists and protesters in the early days of the uprising that broke out in March 2011.
He followed two young Syrians, Abdel-Basset al-Sarout, a youth goalkeeper who became the city’s most popular singer of protest songs, and Osama al-Homsi, a university student-turned-media activist.
But as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime responds to the protests with violence, the pair respond differently.
“One of them took up weapons, and the other remained peaceful up until his arrest, after which there was no news of him,” Derki said.
Sarout is seen commanding rebel forces, while Homsi remains unarmed, documenting the plight of his hometown.
Homs has suffered some of the worst destruction throughout the nearly three-year Syrian conflict, and its Old City has been under a suffocating army siege that has led to fatal food shortages.
“Recently, a group of my friends who are under the siege tried to get out to get food and were ambushed by regime forces,” said Derki.
“People are dying of starvation. Neighbourhoods under siege are being shelled non-stop.
“As an artist, I find the steadfastness on display to be almost like a fairy tale,” he added.
“The fact is that these people are facing the fiercest of military campaigns, something human beings cannot bear, and they are still holding on after 600 days of being under siege.”
In recent days, Syria’s regime and opposition have been negotiating without success on bringing aid into Homs.
The regime has reportedly agreed to allow women and children to leave besieged areas, but the opposition wants aid to be delivered to the central city.
Derki, who is now based on the Turkish side of the border with Syria, is working on another documentary about the war in Syria.
He said he believes film can “bring us together” and that reaction to ” Return to Homs” had been overwhelmingly positive, especially in the United States.
“Even those who don’t know the slightest bit about the conflict in Syria saw everything clearly: the conflict between a people and a dictator surrounded by mercenaries, a young Syrian defending his home, his neighbourhood and his neighbours and sacrificing himself to do so,” he said.
“There are people who came out of the cinema and said: We have brothers in Syria who we didn’t understand properly until now. They need us to stand by them, even if it is with words.”