Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 26, 2014

Return to Homs

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:22 pm

“Return to Homs” has the distinction of not only being the first documentary made about the Syrian revolution but also being a work of great sensitivity, political insight and courage. I saw it last night at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the annual New Directors/New Films Festival and urge New Yorkers to see a screening at 9pm tonight at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. (The festival is jointly produced by MOMA and Lincoln Center.)

It is fairly easy to understand why this would be the first major documentary to emerge after three years of war. To start with, it is not easy to gain entrance to Syria through the normal channels. One must assume that director Talal Derki, a Syrian who lives in Germany, came across the border “illegally”. And once he was there, he took great risks in filming in an extremely dangerous location. From August of 2011 to August of 2013, he was on the front lines of the action in Homs with Syrian fighters being wounded or killed all around him, including some of the young men featured prominently in his film. But perhaps the key reason is that American documentary filmmakers, despite tacking to the left, saw little motivation in taking up the cause of “jihadists”. Not long after the early halcyon days of the Arab Spring, a consensus arose that the rebels were no better than the regime that they sought to overthrow. So naturally it would take a Syrian filmmaker to step forward and make the case for his oppressed countrymen. Abandoned by most of the world, including the left, it is up to the Syrians themselves to determine their own future.

In the opening scenes of “Return to Homs”, we meet the two young principals, star soccer goalkeeper Abdul Basset Saroot and media activist Ossama al Homsi. Both are paradigmatic figures. Basset leads mass rallies in the spring of 2011 in the streets of Homs using the distinctive Syrian call-and-response style. Meanwhile, Ossama is everywhere with his Sony video camera capturing the people as they dodge the snipers’ bullets while protesting peacefully. One might easily surmise that Ossama was a member of a Local Coordinating Committee, a grass roots network of young activists who used Youtube and social media to get the word out.

After Baathist killers cut down one too many peaceful protesters, the young men in Basset and Ossama’s circle decide to arm themselves and defend the movement. Ossama, however, feels that this is a mistake. Peaceful protest must prevail against all difficulties. Basset makes the case that most Syrians made, however. Even though taking up arms created its own risks, it was being forced upon them. They had no choice.

Once that decision was made, Homs became a living hell. Armed with nothing more powerful than AK-47’s and RPG’s, Basset and his comrades stood off tanks, jets, and heavy artillery. In excruciating detail, we see entire blocks of apartment houses turned into rubble, including those of Basset and Ossama. We see them in their former living rooms and kitchens, gazing at the wreckage. Ossama looks in vain for a filter for his Sony and only manages to retrieve a coffee mug. Both young men find themselves on the run as the siege of Homs tightens it grip. A sense of desperation develops even though Basset and the other young fighters vow to fight on despite all odds. In thinking about an analogy for their situation,  cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad during WWII, when Hitler’s forces killed both by bullet and by starvation, came to mind.

On February 12, 2014 the NY Times reported on the extraordinary achievement of “Return to Homs”. Using professional digital cameras and some Sony Handicams, the sort of modest device you bring with you on vacation, director Talal Derki and his fellow Syrian co-producer Orwa Nyrabia covered the critical phases of the struggle in Homs using their electronic gear in the same way that John Reed used his typewriter in Mexico and Czarist Russia. So modest were their means that they even lacked a credit card to pay for the registration fees at the Sundance Film Festival. Fortunately the organizers waived the fee.

When in Homs, they recharged their phones and laptops from car batteries and portable gasoline generators. They risked their lives to sneak past army checkpoints, and when things turned too deadly to continue, they taught Basset and his comrades how to use the Handycams. The footage was then smuggled out.

Of particular interest was the willingness of two veterans of the American film industry to show solidarity with Orwa Nyrabia when his life was in danger:

Mr. Nyrabia was detained at the Damascus airport on Aug. 23, 2012, and later accused of making a film with a terrorist. He was held for three weeks by military intelligence in an underground prison, he said, thrown together with 84 younger Syrians, most of them conscripts apparently reluctant to shoot fellow Syrians. “They had blinked before shooting,” he said.

His fellow inmates were deferential, Mr. Nyrabia said. “They wouldn’t make me queue for the bathroom because I was considered very old.” [Nyrabia is 36!]

Mr. Nyrabia, who now lives in Berlin, attributed his release to pressure on the Syrian government from international publicity about his disappearance. A group of prominent filmmakers and Hollywood celebrities including Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, along with members of 24 international and American cinema associations and unions, signed a petition demanding that the Syrian authorities free Mr. Nyrabia.

While Syria’s government routinely ignores demands by Western political leaders, Mr. Nyrabia said, “when it’s De Niro or Scorsese, that’s embarrassing.”

It is too bad that the American left has less interest than such luminaries in showing such solidarity.

One can only hope that general distribution of “Return to Homs” might help to change some minds. It is about as powerful a testimony to the heart and soul of one of the great revolutionary struggles of the past half-century, as determined in its own way as the Vietnamese fight to rid its country of colonialism. When you see a young man like Basset with no military training  challenging a tank with nothing more than a machine gun, you understand that freedom is more precious to him than life itself.

In the Q&A, director Talal Derki mentioned that his next film will be about Syria’s struggle against a new threat that is as inimical to freedom as the Baathist dictatorship: the Islamic fundamentalists of ISIS and similar militias. Since he will be at the Q&A tonight as well, I urge New Yorkers to try to make to Lincoln Center. It will be your film experience of the year.

 

1 Comment »

  1. […] As Tacitus once said, “They make a desert and call it peace.” I reviewed the film a while back (https://louisproyect.org/2014/03/26/return-to-homs/) and urge you to see this most powerful film that will either remind you of the dedication and […]

    Pingback by Human Rights Film Festival 2014 | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 10, 2014 @ 12:44 am


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