By Jennifer Crumpton
A small, lifeless boy lies in a pool of blood on the floor of a bland, crumbling concrete room. Gut-wrenching, helpless wails of mourning rise up from those standing around him. “God curse you, Bashar!” cries one low, scratchy voice, perhaps his father’s.
After the initial weeks of peaceful, even jovial, protests featuring singing and dancing in the streets — accented with the hopeful spirit of 2011’s Arab Spring — this is what it has come to in the Syrian city of Homs.
The documentary film Return to Homs follows Basset, a young soccer player, and Ossama, a citizen journalist, over three years of the Syrian conflict, from 2011 to 2013. In the beginning, the charismatic 19-year-old Basset is energetic and idealistic, leading songs about freedom and democracy with his melodious voice among crowds of villagers. Over time, as more civilians are killed, including two of his brothers, and his family’s home is destroyed, Basset becomes thin and depressed. This change happens slowly but steadily as he is forced to give up his pacifism and take up arms to protect himself, his family, and his community.
People in United Nations garb arrive and the shelling stops temporarily. They take in the devastation and greet the people but seem at a loss for how to help. As soon as they leave the city, the violent attacks resume.
Director and writer Talal Derki immerses viewers into the anxiety and despair of daily life as shells explode, decimating neighborhoods. Dust fills the air as a frantic, frightened woman tells the camera how her family was driven from their beds at 2:00am by shelling. She does not know where she and her children will go. Basset sings a passionate song admonishing the Syrian army to stop killing its own people, to stop blindly following orders.
Producer and cinematographer Orwa Nyrabia follows the friends through the rubble that was once Basset’s home, as they point out the remnants of sentimental possessions. “This was my sister’s favorite mug,” he says, joking that it needs to be washed. On another day, fighters call to each other between two blown out buildings, unable to cross because of snipers who are always watching, ready at the trigger. They are wishing their friends across the way would magically be in possession of some tobacco. At times, their sporadic humor and good-natured ribbing reminds us that these are just young boys, long-time friends who are bound with blood ties to their community.
When one of the fighters takes the camera out with him, we viewers become fighters too, right in the midst of the blood, sweat, panicked shouts, and labored breath. Basset’s leg is shattered by gun fire. Ossama is detained. We watch the group laugh, cry, strategize, plan, sing and worry about one another together.
We watch some get knocked off their feet by rapid sniper fire as they try to navigate their ravaged neighborhoods; we hear the others scream “my cousin!” or “my brother!” We hear them talk longingly about their wives, children, and aging parents. We watch them creep on their stomachs to exposed areas where their friends and family lie wounded or dead, risking their lives to get to them out of harm’s way. From comfortable seats, we watch as they sacrifice everything.
“The world watches us get killed one by one,” Basset laments, “and it is silent as a graveyard.”
Return to Homs is a brave, illuminating and intimate journey through the struggles, sacrifices and moral dilemmas of the Syrian people that continue on today. The film recently won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Watch the trailer here. For more information about the film and showings, go to www.facebook.com/TheReturnToHoms.
Over the past year, ICRD has run faith-based reconciliation workshops for diverse leaders of the Syrian opposition, to train them in strategies for peace and cooperation independent of the fate of the Assad regime. For more on our work, click here.