“We are very sad for what is happening today. We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response.”
“Even in my darkest nightmares, I couldn’t have imagined the city as it is today. Nothing interrupts this silence, but the chirping of birds and the roaring of bombardment.” Talal Derki is walking as he speaks in voiceover, walking through what’s left of Homs. That is to say, he’s “walking through” quite literally. Certainly, he’s crossing from one room to another, but more dauntingly, as he walks, the camera follows him from one home to another: he’s walking not through doorways but through holes in walls, holes created with hammers, so that people who have not evacuated the city, who mean to fight and document the fight, can pass under some modicum of safety and cover, unseen by snipers and men with rocket launchers, waiting to shoot at anyone they spot.
This passage, at once painstaking and casual, is startling the first time you see it in Return to Homs, a dark nightmare that you probably haven’t imagined. But then, you see it again, and then again, in scenes that mark both the filmmakers’ continual returns to Homs, in western Syria, and you begin to understand that what you’re seeing is not only men in transition, but also, the ways that Homs, the city once known as the “capital of the revolution”, is changing, drastically and chillingly.
The changes are narrated and embodied by three protagonists, filmed between August 2011 and August 2013: Derki, Abdul Basset Saroot, celebrated 19-year-old goalkeeper of Syria’s soccer team, and Ossama al Homsi, a 24-year-old media activist. Over this time, they struggle with how to resist and survive the oppression of President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime.
Their struggles begin with optimism, at least in the sense that they are young and can imagine a future unlike the past. Following uprisings in other Arab nations, Syrians hope that their protests might ignite change. But the film — screening 13 and 14 June at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City, each show followed by discussion with producers Orwa Nyrabia and Diana El Jeiroudi — cautions in its first moments that the hope for revolution has history. “Back then,” in March 2011, a title card reads, “the elderly said to the youth, ‘You don’t know this regime, the country will drown in its blood before Al Assad steps down.'”
But, the title card continues, “The youth were already past the point of no return.” It’s an idea that looms over the film that follows, as the rebels look forward not only to victory over the repressive regime, but also, perhaps more crucially, a victory that will be aided by outsiders, people who see their fight as the Syrian rebels have seen the fights of others. Thus, they are determined to make their fight visible. During his first visit to Homs in 2011, Derki remarks that it’s a time “when no media was allowed to cover the events in Syria.”
He imagines that that his coverage, along with that of Ossama and “our friend” Adnan Abdul-Dayem, will create interest and prompt aid. The images they capture are surely moving: bodies of children, mass collections of bodies, bloody faces, burning buildings, and harrowing footage of street fights, shots fired from rooftops and mortars exploding. As they look at footage Derki’s taken in a hospital with his phone, he notes how stupid the Syrian officials have been, not guessing that when he’s telling them he’s talking on his mobile phone, he’s also shooting imagery, of the “torture room”, of victims, of devastation.
He can’t publish this footage, he says, because he’s the only one who was inside, and so would be identified. The next step is to send out multiple cameras, to shoot as much as possible. But then, another truth emerges, that even as their imagery is made public, as international news reporters describe the regime’s brutality… nothing. No help from other nations or groups who might compel Al Assad from his horrific and increasingly habitual tactics.
Basset, a charismatic athlete with experience in front of cameras, at first holds out for nonviolent resistance, but his choices seem limited from the start. He sings, he invites his fellows to sing on e streets and during gatherings inside apartments. And then, one night, the film shows Derki watching footage of street protests, including Adnan holding a placard that says only “Peace”. Derki observes, “Some of the other protestors were throwing rocks. He did not. He shouted peaceful. We lost him that night.”
The violence only increases, as troops commit massacres and destroy streets. Basset changes, as his city does. He begins to work on organizing untrained soldiers, on arming them and training them to shoot. This because they are targets whether they shoot back or not. “Like the homes and the streets,” narrates Derki, “We too get or fair share of mortar shells.” When the UN observers come to Homs, they do just that, observe: the camera follows them as they walk and look: “Don’t film me,” says one UN officer, her blue helmet bobbing. That visit ends in a few hours, and so, apparently, does international observation.
And so, the people in Homs, who leave and return, bear the burden of seeing it, of showing it, telling its story. When an injured Ossama leaves to recover and then returns to Homs, he is devastated by what he sees. “The Homs he knew was drastically changed,” Derki says, as you watch Ossam sit and slump on a couch, his bandages white against the dingy room. What he sees is men assembling weapons, in a living room. “The passion for weapons had spread endemically amongst those who were once non-violent. Everyone talks about battles and the army’s losses in Homs.” Derki laments, “He was like an immigrant discovering a new city.”
That you share this discovery doesn’t make him seem any less isolated or mournful. And the tragedy persists, as Homs is now, a year after Return to Homs completed filming, given over to the Syrian army.