Filmmaker Talal Derki discusses the making of the film, Return to Homs.
POV: You have two main characters. Tell us about Basset and Ossama. How did you find them and give us a little bit of their backstory?
Talal Derki: So Ossama was a camera activist in Homs and we worked together and he introduced me to Basset, the football player, soccer player, who become a singer in the demonstration during that time, earlier in 2011 until the end of the peaceful time of the revolution. We met him during one of his biggest demonstrations in Bayadah, his neighborhood. And I made an interview with him. It wasn't in the beginning for... It wasn't my plan to make documentary, it was just I make one interview as usual thing I do for telling what's happened. And after this interview, I start to believe that this person have promise, he will take that challenge. He's the one that... It can be telling by following his story what is going there.
POV: So when did you first start following them?
Talal Derki: I started in the end of summer, in August, early in August of 2011.
POV: How long did you follow them for?
Talal Derki: It's almost around two years.
POV: I'm going to ask you about Basset's singing. He transforms from a soccer player to this inspirational leader using these songs to tell a story.
Talal Derki: Yes, with his friend, that's his poem, they work together and his friend called (inaudible), they work together to make this poem, songs, and... So this was one of the biggest elements from our revolution that it's different from other revolution, Arab Spring, that it's... During the songs, people dancing, you can know the whole history if you would. Like I can collect for you five songs from those that originally people singing and demonstration till now and you can know the whole story of Syria, what's happened.
POV: And you're not from Homs.
Talal Derki: I'm Kurdish from, originally from Turkey, but we grew up more than 18 years in Syria, so I'm from Damascus.
POV: There's a very kind of poetic element of your presence in the film where you talk about passing through Homs on your way to Damascus. I'm curious, your relationship to the place?
Talal Derki: Yeah, you know I didn't know Homs in, from inside, how it would look because usually it's a third city in Syria. And we are from Damascus, which is the capital and everybody grow there. And a lot of, like a modern life is more in Damascus. So I have a chance to go there during, because Homs was the first biggest city who entered the demonstration, the revolution. So it was very special. And I get impressed a lot from, from those activists, from those demonstrators, how they are, how big challenge they give. They don't, afraid from death, from snipers, from arresting. And we go, everyone, we learned from them how to hide camera, how to use a different names, how to behave with the checkpoints. So I was a student from all those activists, how, how we can manage to make a film.
POV: It's interesting, cause I want to talk a little bit about the team that you worked with. One of the incredibly powerful and distinctive things about the film is it's extremely intimate. You're in these very dramatic places and dangerous situations. And you and Ossama and Orwa and the rest of your team are taking incredible risks. Can you talk a little bit about your collaborators?
Talal Derki: Yes, yes. Orwa was a cameraman for around half of the film. We were together and we go... It was a difficult journey you know to just to go from Damascus, across all those checkpoints to be there. His mother, some of his, a lot of his family, they are just with us, help us, in a car, just to appear like a normal family, sitting, smoking, putting music up. But in fact the whole car was full with equipment of the, of the camera and stuff. So hide it everywhere. It was real... You know I was... I had black hair before I started. A lot of shocked. Black beard. So though mostly what I believe in the most dangerous was the work of Kahtan Hassoun, the cameraman, one of the best old friends of Basset, that he follow him in the time that in the siege and after that we couldn't be there. Without him it will be something different.
POV: So as a filmmaker working with your team, how do you prepare yourself for that kind of journey and that kind of risk?
Talal Derki: When you start to think and you ask yourself a lot of questions, then you'll never do it. I mean just think that you want to make a special film. And also because I believe of this revolution and I am part of it. And I with myself as a distance... As a, how to say it, a witness of what is going there.
POV: So you were able to somehow set aside your fears of your own safety or concerns about your own safety?
Talal Derki: Sometimes, so you start to feel what I'm doing here... What am I doing here? I start just some flash come of my son...
POV: How old is your son?
Talal Derki: He's now two, two and a half year.
POV: He was a baby.
Talal Derki:He's still a baby. Yeah, small Adam.
POV: That must have been very hard to leave him and go.
Talal Derki: Yeah. And we already left our country and in exile and we don't know when we return back. And we're just searching for a place that we can be, we have a normal life.
POV: When did you leave Damascus yourself?
Talal Derki: I left in the end of summer, in 2012. Then I started to go from illegally crossing the border from between Lebanon and Syria, to being in Homs. This also was very dangerous.
POV: This is during the filming?
Talal Derki: During the filming, because you find yourself suddenly with a big truck full of weapons, with the fighters. You don't know them. This is the only way to cross and this is like war road we call it.
POV: For those people who are not familiar with the evolution of the conflict in Syria, you know from this you know peaceful protest movement to insurgency, to civil war, can you give us a little bit of the background on what started this change in Syria and how it shifted over time?
Talal Derki: It was a golden age of the regime, they have the power, they have the money, they have the police, they have the army. They have everything and you are just a normal civilian who want to change all of that. So this challenge wasn't easy without getting support from other people who believe of the aim of this revolution. So, but this didn't happen. I mean people find themselves alone. I mean your city is bombed. Your brother gets arrested and you are alone without food, without anything and you should protect the others. Romantic...
POV: I think there's an element of that in western coverage of the Arab Spring, of a romance, these are people taking back power but it's clearly much more dangerous and difficult.
Talal Derki: From the first demonstration, they killed innocent people. They just shouting.
POV: Has the film been seen in the region or anywhere in Syria at all?
Talal Derki: We have a private screening. He screened in Homs during the siege with Abdul Basset and his group. And he screened in the north. He screened for a lot of Syrian refugees you know with the Basset the beautiful bar that when you watch the film with him, that every two minutes he want to stop to put a pause and to explain what is going, the background of the story. And he never get tired and do it many times.
POV: What was the reaction? How was the conversation afterwards?
Talal Derki: So when they start to watch themselves from the beginning, they are all cried. When they saw their city was standing and their life, their family all on the street, and they see the power of the demonstration, and now they are almost destroyed. Ruins. Nothing. No food, nothing. When you see how we start and how was it and how it became, for sure you will start to hate your enemy more, but you start to feel sad about how it's gone, how we became, how it... The dreams not exist anymore.
POV: Where is Basset now and what is he doing?
Talal Derki: I don't know if I'm allowed to tell about him because his situation is not secure at all. But he's in the north of Homs. As I hear that he's without any money, without any support and he's a little bit upset. You know he lost four brothers, his father, three uncles.
POV: And Ossama? You have no idea?
Talal Derki: No.
POV: What do you want American audiences to take away from this film?
Talal Derki: As storyteller, I want to tell that I was there as a witness. I have experiences with those people who I believe are a heros. So I'm glad that I was there, I was with them. I was documenting what's going on, and I want people to feel as a human how harsh it is to be in a war. How is it bad, how the image of the war is very bad. By focusing on the face of the young Basset. He lost everything.
POV: What is your hope for the future of Syria?
Talal Derki: In the end, I hope that everybody can return to his home and the war will end and we have peace. This is dream for everyone, not only the Syrian.
POV: Do you hope you yourself will end up back in Damascus?
Talal Derki: I'm not that one who have the... That deepest nostalgia because we are originally from Kurdistan, Turkey and we left our country in 1925 because of revolution and we grow up in Syria and now because of the revolution we left this land, we go to the other land, don't know how it's happened, to my son or I would have... It's for me the cinema is my home. Where I can make films. In Syria and in Europe and in America and any place where I can do the thing that I love. This is my home.