Talal Derki’s "Return to Homs" is an intense, gritty insight into the besieged city of Homs. Filmed from August 2011 to August 2013, it follows the stories of two Syrians who were at the forefront of the revolution in Homs when the protests started in March 2011.
Ossama al Homsi, a 24-year-old local Syrian activist and cameraman, documented the early days of the revolution and Abdul Basset al Saroot is the youthful figurehead of the revolution and the central character of the film. It shows how Abdul Basset gave up a promising football career as Syria’s national goalkeeper at youth level to join the revolution in Homs. The 19-year-old, once voted the second best goalkeeper of his age group in Asia, turns to armed resistance after peaceful protests were heavily suppressed by the Assad government.
The film’s early scenes of jubilant protestors holding hands and dancing in the streets in the lashing rain quickly change to talks about buying weapons and forming militia groups to protect the city. It rapidly becomes a gritty and dark portrayal of war. Terrifying night shots of Basset and his close friends attempting to drive at full speed through the pitch black streets without any headlights to avoid attracting the attention of snipers embody the revolution’s change in mood as the city is besieged.
“It rapidly becomes a gritty and dark portrayal of war”
The four cameramen who collectively filmed the siege of Homs and then managed to smuggle the footage out of Syria deserve considerable praise. Their work showcases the city’s physical demise, with silent landscape shots of decimated apartments and rubble filled streets. The raw sounds of exploding shells and sporadic small arms fire punctuate the skeletal remains of the city.
One extensive scene particularly underlines the lengths to which the filmmakers went to document Abdul Basset’s attempts to return to his family home on the frontline in Badaya district. The audience is transported along the labyrinth of shelled apartments as the cameraman follows a couple of fighters as they hurry through the crudely smashed holes in the dividing walls, desperate to avoid sharpshooters.
The film is well crafted, and in Abdul Basset al Saroot, it has a ready-made hero of the revolution. However my biggest reservation is that it shows only one aspect of the siege of Homs: those who chose to fight the regime. There is no focus on the hundreds of residents in Homs who are not involved in the fighting but are unable to escape the city. No footage shows the scared women and children in the city who were forced to eat grass and boil animal hides in order to fend off starvation. The lives of the civilians who were unintentionally stranded is notably ignored in favour of the image of the brave, defiant rebels, embodied by the charismatic Abdul Basset.
One film critic aptly described Talal Derki’s film as “admirable”. It does have faults, but the importance in documenting the siege of Homs is critical for remembering why protestors first went out onto the streets in Homs in March 2011. Similarly, the ongoing suffering of the people remaining in Homs cannot be forgotten. More than anything, the film is worth seeing just to get an insight into the besieged city and to see what has become of the once beating heart of the peaceful revolution movement.