Return To Homs: IDFA Review

Return to Homs - P 2013
An unflinching, rousing piece of civil-war reportage, literally dispatched from the conflict's front lines.

Newcomer Talal Derki's documentary, which opened the Amsterdam fest, is a inside look at ongoing strife in Syria.

Few human activities are less civil than a 'civil' war, as illustrated by Talal Derki's harrowing behind-the-barricades dispatch Return To Homs.

Granted a high-profile launch pad as the opener at Europe's biggest documentary festival, IDFA, the film is a proudly partisan blast from a besieged Syrian city. As such, it's guaranteed plentiful festival exposure over the coming months, as events in the country look sure to remain prominent in global headlines.

Slickly assembled from inevitably rough-edged materials and available in both 90-minute and 53-minute versions, it makes for tough but necessary, adults-only viewing and could feasibly score limited niche theatrical play in addition to TV slots.

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Return to Homs has rather more going for it than sheer topicality, however, and it should endure as a viscerally direct, consistently informative account of how participants experience the hazards, tedium and lethal thrills of urban combat, and as a portrait of young men radicalized and energized by their circumstances.

Derki, whose background combines filmmaking and journalism, makes no pretense towards neutrality or detachment. Along with his friends Ossama and Abdul-Basset, he sees himself as both media-activist and revolutionary, harnessing 21st-century social media to unite, strengthen and publicize the rebel forces seeking to overthrow Syria's leader Bashar al-Assad.

Seldom seen on camera himself, Derki is nevertheless evidently arm-in-arm at nearly all times with his young comrades. These include 'Basset', a former blacksmith an one-time goalkeeper for Syria's national soccer squad, who's barely out of his teens. Charismatic, articulate and handsome, Basset emerges as the main individual focus of Return To Homs, a firebrand revolutionary increasingly driven towards what he sees as the most glorious of deaths: martyrdom ("this honor is unmatched.")

While such an approach risks turning a national struggle into an individual's story, Derki place Basset's self-consciously 'heroic' narrative within the wider framework of a country -- and specifically a city -- being torn apart over months of armed struggle. The unevenness of this conflict is most graphically illustrated by a sequence early on in which soldiers turn up in a tank to confront protesters on bicycles and on foot.

The western Syrian city of Homs, which Derki terms "Homs the audacious," became a locus of resistance in the war. The city comes under what seems to be a relentless and savage bombardment, turning whole districts into lifeless, sniper-surveyed zones of rubble and twisted metal. Scenes in which the rebels run from house to house, firing on their opponents through holes knocked into the walls, tap veins of adrenalin which Hollywood blockbusters can only dream of finding, the action punctuated by several traumatic incidents featuring on-camera injuries and even deaths.

Explicitly constructed as an urgent appeal for international intervention ("O world, what are you waiting for" goes one of the rebels' many songs), Return To Homs consciously follows in the footsteps of such fictional classics as Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers (1966).

Learning much from such predecessors and sensibly dispensing with any extraneous musical scoreDerki and his experienced editor Anne Fabini have crafted a sober, sobering bulletin of unambiguous intention and undeniable power.

Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition), 25 November 2013
Production companies: Proaction Film, Ventana-Film 
Director / Screenwriter: Talal Derki
Producers: Orwa Nyrabia, Robert Eisenhauer
Director of photography: Kahtan Hassoun, Ossama al Homsi, Talal derki, Orwa Nyrabia
Editor: Anne Fabini
Music: Katarina Holmberg
Sales: Proaction Films, Egypt
No MPAA rating, 90 min.