War changes people, including Abdul Basset Saroot, once the teenage goalkeeper of the Syrian national soccer team, who morphed into a peaceful advocate of Arab Spring reforms and then into an armed opponent of President Bashar al-Assad's regime ready to be martyred for his cause.
Shot between August 2011 and April 2013, Return to Homs provides an unprecedented look at the Syrian regime's war against its own people--a war largely waged behind a media blackout. Stark and fast-paced, the film is a plea for intervention in a conflict the world has mostly overlooked.
The film focuses on Basset, 19 at the start of the filming, who was once voted the second best goalkeeper in Asia. Handsome and charismatic, he also has musical talent, which he deploys against the regime. His anti-Assad songs and chants do not escape the dictator's attention, and he is invited to meet with the Syrian ruler. Basset refuses, preferring to lead protests, and he soon gains rock-star status.
Assad is not pleased and eventually responds to the protests with heavy artillery, tanks, snipers and fighter jets. Basset and his colleagues, including friend and videographer Ossama, 24, conclude they have no choice but to take up arms. They chant, "Our old dreams are gone. [Assad] kills his own people to stay in power. Shame on him."
Basset and his colleagues, though often short on ammunition and food, are heavily armed with gallows humor and religious faith. "With our blood, father, we shall please God," they sing. As the film proceeds, they back their words with huge sacrifice. Basset sees colleagues and family members killed and wounded; among them is Ossama, whose treatment in a dirty field hospital is closely filmed. Basset is wounded three times, once while on camera, resulting in perhaps the documentary's most harrowing segment. Ossama is later captured and detained.
Despite continuous setbacks and defeats, and food rations that drop to a few olives a day each, the insurgents do not give in. Yet their hope that outsiders will rally to their defense often fades. "The world remains as silent as a graveyard," the fighters lament. "O world, what are you waiting for?"
The story behind the film is also riveting. Producer Orwa Nyrabia was not initially sure there would be enough material for a full-length feature. "Although we liked the idea of the two protagonists, there was no dramatic arc at first," he said. "We never expected that, a few months into shooting, Basset would become a militia fighter and Ossama would be detained. The harsh reality carved the film's drama. One wishes that the reality would have been less dramatic and that we could have lost the film."
The documentary includes unforgettable scenes, including the fighters' passage through a series of bombed-out homes whose interior walls have been tunneled out to provide protection from Assad's ever-present snipers. Every frame reminds viewers why Homs is known as the capital of the Syrian revolution.
Making Return to Homs was nearly as dangerous as fighting the Assad forces. The regime enforced a news blackout and filmmakers were labeled terrorists. Cameras were often dismantled and hidden in car chassis to get past checkpoints, then reassembled. Videographers recharged phones and laptops from car batteries and portable generators. Footage was smuggled out of the war zone at great risk.
And making the film was life-altering work. "The crisis changed each and every one of us," director Derki said. "The challenges changed us, but mostly it was death. Death left its mark on every one of us: We all changed because of the increasing violence, the loss of people close to us, the injustice, the fragmentation. However, Abdul Basset was strong and very solid; he was and still is persistent."
The drama continued after filming ended. While Derki managed to leave Syria, producer Nyrabia was detained at the Damascus airport and accused of making a film with a terrorist. He was held for three weeks in an underground prison, though he was finally freed in response to international pressure on the Assad regime from, among others, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Alex Gibney.
The film faced other hurdles as well: The filmmakers did not have credit cards to pay for Sundance registration. Fortunately, Sundance waived the registration fees, paving the way for festival success.
Basset, meantime, continues the struggle as Return to Homs carries his desperate plea to a widening audience: "O world, what are you waiting for?"
Return to Homs is a production of Proaction Film and Ventana Films. Visit www.returntohoms.com for a full list of awards and screenings.