The graphic, gripping 'Return to Homs' puts a burning Syria on display

Review: Syrian director Tala Derki paints a violent reality of the ongoing Syrian unrest with the documentary 'Return to Homs.'

A nation is burning right now. As we sit in our pretty little homes fuming over petty little problems, millions in Syria are being snuffed out. And as we glance at the newspaper, a country where a civil war rages since 2011 finds no place. It is old news.

Talal Derki’s documentary Return to Homs, which screened at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival last Saturday, is a reminder to the world to act.

Derki’s film tells the story of 19-year-old Abdul Basset al-Sarout, the goalkeeper of the Syrian soccer team, and his 24-year-old friend Ossama, a media activist. They are young and gifted, and once, a long time ago, they had dreams. Today, they are branded terrorists by Bashir al-Assad’s dictatorial regime. Like many other Syrians, the two took to arms and joined a nationwide revolution against Assad.

They could either flee their country or get killed. It wasn’t an easy choice, Derki says, in a film that tails the two soldiers from 2011 to 2013.

Frame by frame, the camera follows their day-to-day activities: buying weapons, planning combat, firing, bombing, fighting, burying a dead friend, then another, fighting Assad’s troupes, protecting innocent civilians, making five minute phone calls to distressed kith and kin, more weapons, more fighting…

Frame by frame, the city of Homs is grazed down. The film opens on what resembled a city. Now it’s a battleground. Houses and roads look intact still. But soon, they have holes in them; their roofs crumble, and entire buildings come cascading down. Basset laughs as he tells his friend he was on the top floor of one that decided to crash just then. His laughter is his only escape.

Frame by frame, Derki’s film in its portrayal and act of filming on battleground is brave. The lens of the camera does shudder once, when a sniper blasts.

In one scene, Ossama visits a military hospital. What we see resembles a torture chamber. Dead bodies — hacked, mutilated, bleeding — fill the screen. By now, our eyes feel cold and get accustomed to the violence in Derki’s film.

But then, you see a father cry hollow as he looks at the corpse of his son. A boy, perhaps six or seven years old, lies still in the center of an empty room.

In another scene, Basset tells his comrades they must stay home with their wives and children if that is what they want. But to join him means betting away their life.

The film exposes real fears, real frustrations.

Basset is their leader, their hope. He mustn’t be weak, even when his friends, four brothers and two uncles die. But he breaks down and cries like a schoolboy when his leg is severely injured during combat.

In the next scene, however, he is fighting again. And every time his men are pushed out of Homs, he gathers soldiers and strength to return to Homs again.

This is a story of hope. And even though it may appear like an anthology of gore, it urges us to condemn violence.

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