How differently people might remember the Alamo had there been a camera crew there to observe it. Talal Derki’s “Return to Homs” represents a remarkable achievement in immersive conflict-zone filmmaking, fearlessly taking auds to the front lines of the Syrian civil war and embedding them alongside soccer star turned resistance leader Abdul Basset Saroot, a charismatic nonviolent protestor pushed into taking up arms against the oppressive regime. What the film lacks in context it gains in visceral eyewitness value, its countless tragedies serving as a potential rallying cry to supporters wherever this Sundance World Cinema docu winner unspools abroad.
When the film opens, Homs could pass for a thriving Syrian city, though tanks in the streets and soldiers on rooftops reflect the mounting tension between the locals and the country’s leader, president Bashar al-Assad, “elected” (the 2000 ballot offered no alternatives) after the death of his father, who had controlled the country for three decades before him. By the end, Homs will be a shelled-out ghost town, these once-healthy neighborhoods populated only by troops and an underground resistance movement.
Of all the countries stirred toward freedom by the Arab Spring, Syria had perhaps the most tangled situation. In 2011, civil war broke out after the national army met peaceful, youth-driven demonstrations with a show of force. Derki and his team were present to witness these early protests in Homs — the center of the uprising — observing a small faction of freedom fighters, “the men of Zeer street,” for the next two years as the situation escalated. Despite voiceover narration from the director, “Return to Homs” seldom actually explains what it depicts. Instead, in true verite style, the scenes must speak for themselves, even though it may take multiple viewings to make sense of the film’s many intricacies.
The early scenes are the easiest to follow, as a handsome local celebrity, 19-year-old goalkeeper Saroot, galvanizes a crowd by singing in a local square. Young and optimistic, he seems convinced that change is possible without violence, but Assad’s harsh reaction to this movement proves otherwise: The army cracks down, claiming the lives of innocents and children in the process, while detaining suspected dissidents — including activist cameraman Ossama al Homsi, whom Derki had hoped to feature as one of the docu’s main characters, until his disappearance.
Such unforeseen twists reiterate the tangible tragedy of making a real-world war movie, as opposed to one where the casualties are scripted for poetic effect. Here, no one is safe, and we fear for Saroot’s safety, especially as his remaining friends and relatives fall, making the young man increasingly obsessed with martyrdom. Thankfully, fatalities typically don’t occur on camera, although the bloody aftermath becomes a frequent focus. This consequences-centric approach underscores the demoralizing senselessness of the violence and the futility of such a mismatched insurgence, where the rebels’ only hope is that the outside world will intervene on their behalf.
Logistically, making such a film is no less complicated — or dangerous — than the revolution itself, and “Return to Homs” may ultimately prove more effective in attracting the support the movement requires. With digital cameras smuggled into the siege zone the same way arms are, and semi-exposed operators (including producer Orwa Nyrabia) shooting footage at great personal risk, the project ensures that the personal sacrifice of those fighting for a true democracy is documented and broadcast abroad.
Though the footage consists of jittery, often disconnected fragments, many of these images leave a haunting impression: a child’s doll abandoned in a pile of rubble, a tank exploding in a plume of smoke, a dead boy felled by a sniper’s bullet. Even amid so much violence, the most frequent sight is that of Saroot singing, his hopeful chants serving as the unofficial soundtrack to the film — and an anthem to the city of Homs in general. (Docu’s sound work is something of a marvel under the circumstances.) Saroot’s homemade videos already spread the revolutionary cause via YouTube, while this essential, unsparing documentary (also available in a TV-ready, 53-minute cut) gives their struggle a powerful international boost.