Talal Derki’s The Return to Homs (2014) is a Syrian documentary about the city of Homs “the heart of the revolution.” More specifically it is a story about one young charismatic revolutionary song-writer Basset, a former goalkeeper who dropped his athletic aspirations when the revolt against Bashar al-Assad broke out in 2011. Derki follows Basset through all the stages of the revolution in Homs: from the banners and drums of non-violent protest, to the RPG’s and barricades of armed revolution.
Shot over three years, the film shows the rapid changes and devastation that Homs underwent as a punishment for its revolutionary spirit. As the subjects of the film begin to quickly lose the most basic components of their lives (with many losing their lives altogether), the only consistent elements that are left to anchor them to dignified existence are Basset’s revolutionary songs, the gun and the presence of the camera. Without the song, the camera, and the gun-- neither resistance nor the people's dignity can be maintained.
The camera and the gun also represent the dichotomy between non-violent and armed resistance. This is highlighted by the disagreement between Ossama, the video activist who prefers to use his camera to resist and Basset who prefers the gun. However, this division is overcome by the third element of song which unites all Syrians-- even the regime’s forces, whom Basset invites to join the resistance in one song.
Basset's songs also represent the determination of the revolutionaries who are ready to become martyrs in order to liberate the families imprisoned by the siege of Homs. But Derki does not employ the Western narrative which interprets Arab resistance fighters' rhetoric of martyrdom (whether in Palestine or in Syria) as a flawed value system. According to this Orientalist view, resistance fighters are illogical individuals who romanticize death and destruction. Instead, Derki’s martyrs are strategic individuals. They understand that staying alive is crucial to the continuance of the revolution and that their bodies are not meant to be disposed of. Death is just a risk and therefore martyrdom becomes a means, not an end.
The Return to Homs is a departure from the tendency to dehumanize Syrian resistance fighters and to “victimify” Syrians in general. It is this lack of a “poor Syrians” image (epitomized by the image of the refugee) which Western audiences crave that led to some negative reviews of the film by critics like Xan Brooks-- who condemned Derki for not including more sorry images of average Syrians. Yet, this kind of demand shows a misunderstanding of the film. Derki is not asking for the viewers' pity or charity. He’s asking for solidarity.
See the Trailer here.