Talal Derki is a Syrian filmmaker whose documentary on the Syrian revolution, Return to Homs, took last week’s Sundance Film Festival by storm, shocking audiences and critics with its gritty portrayals of the crackdown on protests and the subsequent siege of the city. NOW sat down with the director to discuss the making of the film and how his experiences in Homs have shaped him.
NOW: What is Return to Homs about?
Talal Derki: The movie is about the Syrian citizen who challenged everything and everyone to demand freedom. It portrays the challenges that citizen was going through, the changes [in the revolution], and how the new Syrian citizen will negotiate these changes. It’s a movie about war and the pressure of being in a battlefield.
It’s a movie capturing the actions, reactions, and challenges [of the war] and how Syrians reacted to the situation. We wanted to film the story of our country, a clear story of historical events that took place, to make a movie that answers many questions about the Syrian uprising.
NOW: How did you manage to transform your idea into a movie given the current situation in Syria?
Derki: The idea of the movie developed while we were documenting what journalists weren’t able to document, knowing that it was getting harder for them to cross into Syria. We spent most of our time documenting and videotaping the events taking place.
Some [of the filmmakers and other social media activists] were documenting with mobile phones, others with small cameras; at some point, everyone was documenting.
The idea of making this movie was present from the start of the Syrian uprising. First I was documenting in the north of Syria in al-Kamishly. I was there looking for a “personality” to make a movie about. Sadly, I could not find that character [there].
But when I got to Homs and met Abdul Basset al-Saroot, I was inspired immediately. I knew it: he was the personality that I had been looking for, a courageous 19-year-old man, full of character and charisma who was exactly what I was looking for. He could bring the people closer to him in a second, and everyone loved him and appreciated his energy. I had been looking to document such a personality for years, probably from 2006 as I recall.
A public “folk hero” is a good way to describe Saroot. Why a public hero? Because in our history as Syrians, we don’t really have this kind of public folk hero. It’s a rare phenomenon.
NOW: Why did you choose Saroot? Can you tell us more about him?
Derki: I remember the protests clearly. Saroot’s spirit distracted us from filming many times; we left our cameras aside and participated in the protests. It was beyond motivating.
[Saroot] is from al-Bayyada/Homs and he comes from Bedouin roots. He is 19 and never attended university; instead, he used to help his father in his forging business. His father discovered Abdul Basset’s talent in soccer, and after that, he started playing with the Karama team. Gradually he became a famous goalkeeper and was granted many awards. He tells me that he just wants the revolution to succeed so he can return to his normal life after. Physically, he can’t play soccer or any other sports anymore because of several injuries. Moreover, Homs is under siege, and he’s getting half of what his body needs to survive and function. The situation is beyond sad.
We deeply hope for [Saroot and his fellow activists] to be safe and stay safe because without [Saroot] and the rest of them, there will be chaos. Abdul Basset describes himself as very emotive – he always uses his emotions. He used to do so in soccer, and he did the same in the revolution. In the first protests in Homs, Saroot climbed the other guys’ shoulders, took his shirt off, and started chanting, “Hey hey sniper, here’s my neck and my head.” It was sort of a challenge, his message: I am Abdul Basset al-Saroot, I don’t hide my face, I use my full name, and I am here and against the Syrian regime. The challenge he gave, how brave he was, how he introduced new ways of protesting like the dancing circles that used to happen during the protests of Homs – he managed to bring some elements of soccer culture into the protests.
NOW: Who is Usama?
Derki: The character of Usama in the movie represents the eyes of the viewer Usama’s camera represents the fictional presence of the viewer in Homs. Eventually I start including Usama in the movie in front of the cameras, in contrast with his original role. But I wanted to highlight his role as a videographer, which is why I didn’t include him within the frame of the camera initially.
NOW: What has changed in the past three years in Syria?
Derki: What started as peaceful protests in Syria soon evolved into siege in Homs, into the battles and violence around the country, where snipers shot citizens and the regime shelled places killing innocent souls. This led to complications when organizing a simple protest in terms of trying to protect the protestors.
The characters were present in each and every historical event in Syria. They lived through every bit of it, and we thankfully managed to film the entire evolution of the Syrian revolution, keeping a clear timeframe and making sure that the script allowed the viewer to clearly understand the real process and timing of each scene and event regardless of the changes [in the revolution].
After the Khalidiyyeh massacre in Homs, small brigades were formed in order to protect the protests. Everyone used to carry personal weapons for self-protection. That’s when Saroot started carrying weapons.
NOW: How did these changes affect the movie?
Derki: Regardless of the constant changes in the past years, we linked each and every change to the characters in the movie and tried to portray how these changes affected them.
This was what caught my attention since day one: everyone changed, we changed, and the crisis changed each and every one of us. The challenges changed us, but mostly it was death. Death left its mark in every one of us: we all changed because of the amount of deaths and the increasing violence, the loss of people close to us, the injustice, the fragmentation. However, Abdul Basset was strong and very solid; he was and still is persistent. It’s the will of the people. The losses are much more than the successes, yet these people are willing to continue till the very end. It makes you believe in them and trust them.
NOW: What risks did you face in the process of making the movie?
Derki: There was an endless amount of risks taken during the making of the movie. However, what I included had to be relevant to the script’s structure. For example, there were two great personalities who were present during the making: Bilal al-Mohammad, who was the head of the local emergency room, and Bassel Shehade, who was also present in Homs at the time. But for structural reasons, for the 90-minute movie’s message to be defined, I did not include a lot of their scenes and stories. This is why we focused on Saroot and Usama’s characters. So the scenes in the movie shocked many people – the shelling, the death of a fighter who was alive few seconds ago.
Back to the risks. The risks started from day one, the day we started planning for the movie: once you decide to pack your camera and move, you become one of the people wanted by the Syrian regime, with all the checkpoints, the snipers, the intelligence, the shelling, the tanks. A countless number of risks were taken.
NOW: How did you manage to work as a team while being separated in different areas? How did you manage to collect the taped material?
Derki: It took us a long time to assemble all the footage because of the situation, from shelling to siege to road cuts and checkpoints. We had to re-shoot many scenes, and we had to replace other scenes. Our close friends and families contributed in transferring the material. It was a challenge that took a long time and considerable risks. Sometimes the FSA helped us smuggle taped material out.
The filming did not stop from day one when we started until the last week. It was continuous: even when [our team] couldn’t proceed with it because of the siege in Homs, Saroot’s friend Abou Adnan was filming. Even when Saroot and his group were stuck in an area and couldn’t return to Khalidiyyeh, the filming did not stop: they were being filmed using Zoom lenses, a process that lasted for 15 days until they managed to dig a tunnel and return to Khalidiyyeh.
NOW: Who participated in the making of the movie?
Derki: The process was not short: it took us two years of filming and around six months of editing. One of the main characters, Usama, was filming at the beginning; after a while, Usama went missing and we still don’t know anything about him. He and Abu Adnan [Kahtan Hassoun], who always accompanied Saroot, took the responsibility of filming when we were away and could not be in Homs.
NOW: On a personal level, how did this experience change you?
Derki: Artistically, it changed a lot in me. The filmmaker must live within the movie he is making, and he must be present there no matter what to convey the right feelings within his work.
The filmmaker should be a part of the experience, and must experience all of the details. He must be a part of the movie and the unforeseeable [developments], and he always must have solutions.
On a humanitarian level, I consider the movie an experience of life more than a [mere] film. It is a good thing that we got to experience these events, and I consider myself lucky for having been a part of the change. The Syrian revolution is a phenomenon that might not happen again for a hundred years. However, I would say that the lucky ones are the next generations, the generations who will get to live in a better Syria.
NOW: Tell us more about yourself.
Derki: Before the revolution, I was practicing my trade, which I learned years ago before the revolution. I studied filmmaking and directing in Greece. I had a thing for storytelling and fiction until 2007, which was when my interest in filming documentaries grew bigger, and I started thinking of filming something for Syria. Orwa and I had that dream since day one, and then the revolution started and we decided to pursue with the dream, as risky as it may be. It was all a challenge, going to Homs was a challenge, but we made it happen as a team.
NOW: So what’s next for Syria?
Derki: There is no doubt that Syria is going through a dark phase now, but this long painful labor will end; I am optimistic. The Syrians are no longer vulnerable: they changed because of this revolution. We paid a high price for freedom, so it will no longer be taken for granted. What makes me certain that Syria will be okay is the motivation and commitment of the Syrians.
Return to Homs will be screened as part of the Istanbul Film Festival in April 2014. No screenings in Lebanon have been scheduled.
Published on NOW (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/Interview/533177-talking-to-talal-derki)