Director Talal Derki discusses his new documentary on the Syrian war, and its unique impact on one particular city.
The film's protagonist, Abdul Basset Saroot.
Talal Derki’s Return to Homs, a documentary about a soccer player-turned-protester-turned-revolutionary fighter in Syria, captures on film the tragedy of one of the most devestating human events of our generation. The Syrian revolution, which began on the hopes and dreams of peaceful protesters in 2011, has in the years since become a terrifying and relentless war that has not only taken countless lives but also demolished entired cities in the Levantine country. Return to Homs’ young protagonist, Abdul Basset Saroot, represents one of millions of young men and women who first burst out onto the street in unarmed demonstrations, calling for an end to the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad, but were then forced to take up arms when the regime responded with bullets and bombs.
At the beginning of the film, Saroot is a lively, hopeful young activist. Famous in the city for being goalkeeper of the Syrian national soccer team, he had become an outspoken dissident, singing protest songs at rallies, demanding an end to the regime. But the film documents Saroot’s disenchantment with the revolution and his fatigue with the war as well. Return to Homs premiered at Sundance last year, earning the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and accolades from film critics, who praised Derki for “a remarkable achievement in immersive conflict-zone filmmaking.” The film is set to make its television debut on PBS’s POV tonight, and will be streaming online beginning tomorrow, July 21, to August 20. GOOD spoke with Derki, who is now in Berlin, about the documentary.
How did you find Basset Saroot, the protagonist of your film? What made you decide to focus Return to Homs on him?
I wanted to make a film about what is happening in Syria by following some of the new activists from this new generation who started the protests. Why Abdul Basset? Because he’s intelligent and he’s full of courage and people trusted him. challenged the regime. And the city of Homs is full of stories, more than any other city at that time, in 2011. For that, it’s called the Capital of the Revolution. When I met him, I found, from the beginning, that this person had promise, that he would go far on this challenge. He will never give up. My sense, as a filmmaker, as an artist, told me that I should give him attention.
When I returned with the material, after filming the first two weeks, I edited it and I showed it to friends and producers, and they said, ‘Yeah, we have to make a film about him.’ He’s a very special person. We decided to take the challenge to be at his side. It wasn’t easy at all, because he always put himself in dangerous situations. To follow a person who was always in danger, it was a big decision by me and the team on the film to continue.
It became more and more of an epic—an epic of the city of Homs during the revolution. Something happened to this city, and the whole country, for sure, but especially this city, that has never happened before in its whole history.
Were there any moments where you were scared for your life?
You saw what happened. Most of the people we were with during the film have died. We survived, and we were with them. This is a gift, that we are able to tell what we witnessed about what has happened.
Nobody can say that this didn’t happen. This is real material. A lot of our friends, many cameramen, they were killed. Oussama, the cameraman in the film, is in prison because he’s a cameraman. He’s a peaceful person, and he never supported carrying weapons, but the regime arrested him. So to be in danger, it’s a choice. We chose it. We are filmmakers, yes, but we are also part of this movement.
Even though it’s a war film, you manage to avoid depicting an excess of gore and blood. What kind of decisions did you make to avoid exploitation of Syrian suffering on film?
I tried to focus more on the psychological feeling. It’s about a person who was full of hope about the war, and then he lost all his friends. He said he didn’t want to continue after he buried his friends. But he didn’t have a choice. To be on the frontlines is not his choice. Some people say it’s a film about the war, I say it’s an anti-war film.
At the end of the film, the epilogue tells us that Abdul Basset’s brother and uncle were killed after you left Homs. Are there any updates? Do you know anything else about him?
Everyone who was around him in the film was killed. He lost four brothers. He lost his father. He lost three uncles. A whole community. How do I explain what he has lost? What he’s feeling? He’s in the North of Homs, the suburb of Homs. He has a new, small group fighting there. They don’t want to leave Homs. They believe one day that they can return to their city.