Immediacy is now as important as content for a certain type of documentary. This statehood has been pushed into circumstance by the availability of visual apparatus in everyone’s pocket and professional equipment getting smaller, cheaper and better. Now, your lived-in nightmare reality can be brought to the attention of the world via a couple of clicks. This has become apparent across the Middle East in particular, in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria in particular, with citizen activists documenting every step of their attempts to overthrow yesterday’s Arab strongmen as they cling on for power against the will of their fellow polis. This is certainly the case with Talal Derki’s Return to Homs (2013).
Syria is now embroiled in a complicated mess that has surpassed a Civil War to encompass a snatched revolution by religious outsiders within the same side sponsored by foreign powers who don’t want to sully their hands with the blood of theatre; the gleam has left the stories in the eyes of the Western media but the daily death knock is answered only by the forces of filmmakers, journalists and above all Syrians. With this in mind, there is a timely release for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Return to Homs, which was filmed over three years by Syrian filmmaker Derki. His doc throws you into the action right from the onset, with hardly any contextualisation about the Civil War but this is important as this could be any siege you care to mention, whether that be Sarajevo or Stalingrad.
The neophyte will learn through the two principals about the struggle to topple Bashar al-Assad and see the changes from non-violent singing protests to completely armed struggle and the destruction that does personally and to the city of Homs (and, of course, Syria). We start with two friends: Abdul Basit Saroot, goalkeeper of the Syrian national youth football team turned armed opposition fighter (he was once described as the second best goalkeeper in Asia) and his friend Ossama, a cameraman and media activist. Around halfway through, the film focuses more on Basset as Ossama disappears believed to been snatched by Assad’s secret police. Return to Homs is completely unflinching in its gaze upon what it’s like to be in the middle of an seemingly unending battle for a daily existence that wants to reside in dignity. Scenes of gun battles, death, shelling and gallows humour abound; all the time directed by a filmmaker who allows danger to surround him while never looking away.
One scene continues to live on and it is the constant of travelling through holes in houses which allows the rebels to walk down a whole street under the cover of the shell torn houses, this cinematic device allows just a tickle of poetry to seep through the screen as we are taken within Homs and given an insight to the means to an end that would force Basset to crawl through a sewer to escape his enemies. A film like Return to Homs cannot end – only stop – when faced with what we think will be finality we are given a slice on a moment of hope when we expected elegy. The war goes on (not that you would think so according to the mainstream media) and Return to Homs will do more for Syria than any pale-skinned, Oxbridge educated war tourist who will soon move on to the next war zone. It also makes a brilliant first act to Wiam Simav Bedirxan and Mohammed Oussama’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014). Will there now be a third?