by Matt Levine
God’s greatest gift to humans is Oblivion.
These somber words are spoken by the Syrian freedom fighter Abdul Basset Saroot late in Return to Homs. It’s a profound and unsettling moment: suffering from a gunshot wound and aware that revolution may be out of reach, Basset embraces something between suicide and martyrdom. The above quote may be nihilistic or intensely spiritual, or both; for Basset, the violence of insurgency and totalitarianism can only lead to oblivion.
Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul
Director: Talal Derki
Producer: Orwa Nyrabia
Writer: Talal Derki
Cinematographers: Ossama al Homsi, Talal Derki, Kahtan Hassoun, Orwa Nyrabia
Editor: Anne Fabini
Premiere: November 20, 2013 – International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
US Distributor: Gathr Films
Such cynical sentiments aptly reflect Return to Homs itself, a bitter, shattering documentary set in the west Syrian city of Homs. It was here on April 17, 2011 that many thousands of Homs residents occupied the Main Square in protest of the president Bashar al-Assad, who ruthlessly cracked down on Arab Spring protesters and has been accused of war crimes by the United Nations. Journalist-filmmaker Talal Derki was present at those 2011 demonstrations, which exuded an air of optimism and expectancy that typified many public protests early in the Arab Spring (a revolutionary wave which erupted in December 2010 and spread to 18 Arab countries).
When Derki returned to his adopted hometown (he’s actually from Damascus) in early 2012, Homs looked drastically different. The so-called “heart of the revolution” had been invaded by the Syrian army only weeks after public demonstrations; bombarded by mortar grenades and blockaded by soldiers preventing the passage of food and medicine, the city became almost completely abandoned, save for a small group of armed insurgents.
Abdul Basset Saroot is one of these insurgents—young, dynamic, handsome, even famous (he was voted the second best goalkeeper in Asia before being forced into his second career as freedom-fighter), he provides Return to Homs with most of its narrative drive. He’s a magnetic figure, not simply because of his charismatic speechifying (he brings to mind Che Guevara or a young Yasser Arafat) but because of his distressed vulnerability, which quickly becomes apparent. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that Return to Homs opts to concentrate on one rebel rather than pursuing a broader view of the insurgency as a collective, but it’s hard to complain when the protagonist is so complex and devastatingly human, even if his circumstances are in many ways unimaginable for American audiences. Basset’s sincere relationships with friends and family and the perpetual hint of resignation in his revolutionary words indelibly suggest him as an unlikely hero, an affable kid pushed into violent rebellion by a harsh world. Any film, fact or fiction, would be hard-pressed to find such an engrossing, innately likeable character.
Return to Homs barely attempts to provide a political context to the warfare we witness onscreen, which is undeniably the film’s greatest flaw. All we know from the documentary is that the dictatorial President Assad crushed an uprising in Homs with never-ending bombings and ubiquitous army tanks; we know nothing about the heavily militarized government or cessation of civil rights which the protesters were decrying, or about the insurgent government they hope to install by ousting Assad (if any). Of course the film hopes to approach tyranny and rebellion through on-the-ground immediacy rather than political contemplation, but it would still be valuable to glean the full extent of Assad’s crackdown and the freedom fighters’ retaliation—especially if the film partially intends to stoke international outrage at the civil war raging in Syria.
Accepting Return to Homs as what it is, though—an intense first-person experience of the invasion of Homs, more vérité than The Battle of Algiers (1966) and more unsettling than a thousand CNN news reports—it’s hard to imagine a more powerful depiction of this unthinkable crisis. Small digital cameras are wielded by a gang of rebels who stay behind in Homs, either through political devotion or because they had no other choice (many of the city’s poorer residents were unable to vacate the city). There are three-minute long tracking shots in which we stumble across a maze of rubble, once affluent homes reduced to eerily abandoned craters. The safest way to travel through Homs now is through covert passages connected by demolishing walls between buildings—an arduous task we witness uneasily. As the cameras drift through empty houses, glimpsing dusty photographs and decimated bedrooms, we understand the immense human cost of the headlines we read about civil war and Syrian unrest. If only for that reason (though there are many others), Return to Homs is a must-see documentary.
The words “insurgent” and “freedom-fighter” have a vilified connotation in the United States, where such labels are sometimes simply replaced by “terrorist.” But Return to Homs observes rebels who are neither militant nor religiously devout—they are forced to desperate extremes of solidarity and revolution by the violent tactics of the tyrants who govern them. It’s true that the political fervor the rebels demonstrate does not have a clear or beneficial aspiration, and it’s also unfortunate (though understandable) that Return to Homs’ ensemble is exclusively male, forcing us to question how female residents of Homs are coping with this bombardment. This is one of the primary differences between Return to Homs and The Square (2013), which observed the fallout of demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square from a comprehensive, dialogic perspective. Both films are astounding in different ways: while The Square foresaw a path to political upheaval in Egypt, the rebels in Return to Homs are ordinary people who are forced into rebellion against their will, not because they’re political ideologues. This might be one of the most disturbing symptoms of a civil war like this—it makes martyrs out of the innocent.
Though Return to Homs typically favors a visceral you-are-there approach, the film has a philosophical undertone as well. In fact, the film begins in the manner of a Chris Marker documentary, as writer-director Derki’s voiceover commemorates the city of Homs in ardent, poetic tones—the city he always passed by on the way to Damascus, though he couldn’t know what a profound role it would play in his (and his country’s) future. It is also Derki who locates, through voiceover, the point at which peaceful resistance is shoved into armed rebellion: “Passion for weapons had spread endemically to those who were once non-violent,” he says shortly before a rebel shows off his semi-automatic machine gun.
The film’s unexpectedly bittersweet compassion results in one of its finer, albeit quieter, moments. In the midst of a seemingly endless firefight, Basset is sitting in a hallway, specks of dust flitting through a beam of light permitted by a hole in the wall. He drearily admits to the camera that he no longer has it in him to fight this fight. A closer shot reveals a fleeting smile on his face as he enjoys a reverie to which the audience doesn’t have access; but then a patter of machine-gun fire snaps him out of his solace. In Homs, Basset doesn’t even have the luxury of a momentary escape. This is the trade-off in making Return to Homs more character-driven than politically didactic: it may not be as socially pertinent, but its emotional catharsis forces us to recognize that inhumanity happening a world away isn’t as distant as we might imagine.
Return to Homs barely hides the fact that it’s an agitative polemic: one voiceover alleges, “the world watches what is happening—how we’re getting killed one by one—while it remains silent as a graveyard.” Perhaps this film’s distribution came too late: only a month ago, rebel forces vacated the city as part of a government truce—though abandoning one’s hometown under political directive can hardly be seen as a fair compromise. But even (or especially) if Homs has now been totally ridded of revolutionaries, the devastation wrought upon the city should be witnessed by audiences through the insurgents’ viewpoint. This is the kind of devastating inhumanity that has been made to seem mundane and commonplace through endless news reports and political obfuscation. Return to Homs turns the Syrian civil war and the plight undergone by those marooned in Homs into an overwhelming portrayal of human resilience, and human cruelty. It’s audacious, haunting, electrifying, and indispensable.