Review: Return to Homs (Derki, 2013) – SFIFF 2014

Still from the movie Return to Homs

After missing this film at Sundance this year and seeing it win the festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for documentaries, we were eager to catch Return to Homs at SFIFF. The documentary captures two rebel fighters–one a former goalkeeper for the Syrian national team and one a media activist–as they turn from peaceful protest to guerilla warfare, besieged in their hometown of Homs. Periodically, the filmmaker Talal Derki provides sober, elegiac narration, almost poetic in its sorrow and resignation.

My husband said it was excellent. Sadly, though I watched most of the film (missing only the last few minutes as I was in the bathroom, projectile vomiting into the garbage), I could not give it my full attention. We made the mistake of sitting too close to the screen (not even that close, still five or six rows back), and the shaky camera had me sick nearly the entire movie. I couldn’t even close my eyes and just listen as everything was in Arabic with subtitles. I tried hooding my eyes and just looking at the bottom of the screen, but alas that didn’t work. When I finally moved toward the back half of the theater, it was too late.

Still, through waves of nausea, I could still sense the irreality of this very real war. Rebels sniped by Assad’s army, nothing so still as a running man felled by a bullet. Young men, thirsty for freedom, singing and chanting of martyrdom. Impromptu surgeries conducted on tabletops, fingers probing flesh, water-diluted blood trickling onto the road. Images of shattered buildings, second floor living rooms exposed to the street and sun, seeming to have been taken from a film about the Second World War–The Pianist or somesuch. Or like the CGI recreation of Nazi-destroyed Warsaw rendered in a 3D movie we saw last summer in a Polish museum. Was it just the fact that movies have gotten so good at depicting war that I had to constantly remind myself that this was real?

As we know, there could be no true sense of closure to a film like this, not with the Syrian war growing ever more brutal, no end in sight. The question is, What will we do with this message from the front? Will we just ignore it? What can we do?