Last year, documentary fans were entranced by Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-nominated The Square, which screened at last year's New York Film Festival. The film gave an intimate account of a group of Egyptian revolutionaries who took part in toppling the country's dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Those events in Egypt have continued even as they inspired other parts of the Middle East in what has been dubbed by media as the "Arab Spring." Syria became a major flashpoint beginning in 2011 where mostly peaceful protesters soon spiraled into a civil war. Journalist and filmmaker Talal Derki's Return to Homs takes a look at Syria's struggle from the inside. Similar to The Square, the film captures the zeal, spirit, and tragedy of the revolution through a group of people opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's regime by taking to the streets in vocal demonstrations... and later in armed resistance.
Filmed over three years from August 2011 - April 2013 in the Syrian city of Homs, the two central figures form the nucleus of Derki's documentary, which premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and later at Sundance as well as the recent New Directors/New Film series. Basset is first introduced in the film as a 19-year-old soccer goalkeeper turned revolutionary singer who becomes a focal point among the city's growing opposition. Ossama, his 24-year-old friend, is a journalist and pacifist whose views change. Return to Homs follows the men and their group through shootouts, chases, and a deepening anger as the nation fragments into an entrenched struggle.
"It's a film about how men's choices are not always choices, [but] about how life does impose on them [and] about how life forces some of us to take paths they wouldn't freely choose to take," noted filmmaker Talal Derki, writing about his film. "The people of Homs demonstrated with an amazing bravery."
FilmLinc spoke with Talal Derki at IDFA late last year. Not surprisingly, he's very much on the side of the subjects spotlighted in Return to Homs. Derki set out to find charismatic figures who could personalize the messy business of interpreting a disparate revolution against the contradictory messaging of government propaganda and 24-hour news services prone to focus the cameras on salacious stories of terrorism and radical insurgency.
Derki's film attempts to counter outside fears of Syria's civil war through the intimate story of this particular group who he says are the great majority of Syrians who simply want freedom and an end to the dictatorship. During a conversation at a chilly outdoor café in Amsterdam, he talks about meeting his two protagonists and is very clear about where he stands in the conflict.
FilmLinc: How did this huge undertaking begin and how did you find your main subjects?
Talal Derki: I was working with a group in Homs when it was still early in the movement. We had a common goal to change this regime and we became friends. It was hard to know if later we'd be friends, but when there's a situation where there's a common goal and working on the same side in a revolution, [one becomes] friends. My community are people who work in art and culture. They are now sacrificing everything for their country, their work, and lives. They are moderate—though they are out of the media's focus.
When I was covering the ongoing situation as an observer for YouTube and some agencies in Homs, I met Ossama, who is one of the main subjects in the movie. He was [fighting] along with some friends who are university students. I was there to capture what was going on because there was very little professional media showing people like them. Anyway, through that we became friends.
At the beginning of the uprisings Ossama and Basset were this shining figures in the struggle. Basset composed songs and tried to get people into the streets. I was carrying my camera and filming him and the dynamic was set. We had traveled to the north of Syria and into the Kurdish areas to find someone who could represent the "short cut" for the revolution—someone who represented that hope.
FL: So please describe Basset's charisma and how he embodies this hope for change...
TD: We first met Basset in a room with many, many people. At some point we had made eye contact. I asked people to leave the room and I interviewed him. I tried to tease him a bit. I said, "I want to know something about you. I'm a known filmmaker. Can you describe something about yourself?" He answered with all his innocence. He wasn't nervous and he just told me, "I'm a known person as well. I'm a football player from the national team." He repeated this twice.
Before the revolution when I was studying film under the dictatorship. I was waiting for a generation that would rise up against the dictatorship. I didn't expect it to happen so soon. But Basset embodies this generation and the hope of this generation that is rising up against Assad.
FL: Hearing about the ongoing conflict through the news, it would appear to outsiders that the revolution is actually being fought by disparate insurgencies, some of which are homegrown and hoping simply to have a say in the government, while others are radicalized and not necessarily even Syrian.
TD: The generation I mention is revolutionary. They were raised to defeat the government, so the government has wanted to neutralize them whereas the previous generations are more conservative. It didn't matter if they were extreme radicals or even nationalists. It was easier for the regime to keep them around. But they want to marginalize the younger generation. The young who first went to the street and protested have no connection to a political agenda. People in power are trying to compartmentalize them under political umbrellas. Western representatives who came to Syria didn't recognize this aspect of the opposition. They only wanted to recognize organized opposition groups, which had political agendas. They didn't want to speak to ordinary people without an ideological stance who opposed the regime.
There was a rumor on Facebook [a while back] that while the U.S. Ambassador was visiting [a city] in Syria that he saw a protest in the street with crowds shouting, "Freedom, freedom," and he took out his mobile phone and called President Obama and said that the revolution is very scrary. It should be stopped. It's a rumor among Syrians.
FL: What motivated you to focus on the revolution through this micro-story of this group instead of showing the masses of people who are ordinary citizens unmotivated by ideology taking to the streets?
TD: From the beginning of the revolution, my wife and I were doing our best to cover all the activities of the revolution. We were working for Reuters and CNN. We were everywhere from field hospitals to protests, trying to capture as much as possible, including the armed resistance. In August 2012, all these news agencies said they didn't want stories about humanitarian issues being covered. They said they wanted coverage of the foreigners and Islamists groups. I was in Damascus and there were no foreign radicals there. They were only in the north at the time near the Turkish border. They opened the border for them. After that, the entire world began to change their views of the Syrian opposition because they were seeing so much coverage of the radicals.
The international community and media wanted more suspenseful, dramatic, and "sexy" stories of the war. Peaceful protests and humanitarian issues were not wanted. In Syria's ongoing situation, 8 million people have had to leave their homes and they are mostly against Asaad's regime. They are the core of the revolution. They are just innocent civilians, but they are against the regime and the regime wants them out. The Syrian rebels are moderate. Some may have an Islamic appearance, naturally. Syria is mostly a Muslim country—they believe in life after death. But just because they know they may die, they are not al-Qaeda. Most of them really want to return to their homes and to their normal lives.
FL: Following this group was quite an undertaking and there are many moments throughout the film, especially as things heated up later on, when the situation becomes extremely dangerous and you are there witnessing their fight in real time.
TD: The dangerous moments weren't late in the revolution. They came early on. Neighborhoods that began protesting faced danger right from the outset. People would protest peacefully, but government snipers began shooting at the people from the beginning. They wanted to stamp out the revolution immediately. To be honest, it's a crazy idea for a normal person to go to these areas where we filmed. But we went there because it wasn't just a movie project, but we believed in what these people are doing. The regime doesn't see the people as citizens. If the world closes its eyes, there will only be more massacres.
Friends and enemies are hard to recognize. The Saudis, Iranians, Russians, and even the Chinese have not wanted this revolution to succeed because if it does, it will move to their own countries.
FL: But the Saudis have been angry with the Obama Administration for not being more overtly supportive of the revolution…
TD: Their first goal was to show how brutal a revolution can be to scare their own people. But now that this point has been made, they are now more concerned with sectarian interests. This sectarian war is an aim from many groups to happen in Syria and it is now increasingly more so.
But for most people, they just want the regime to go and allow the people to then choose their government. Who will come afterward will be chosen at that time, but most people taking part in this just want justice and no dictatorship and no censorship. Yes, it is a Muslim country, but just like everyone, they only want freedom. They don't want a theocracy.