‘Return to Homs’: the Syria documentary that just won big at Sundance

January 28

A still from "Return to Homs" (YouTube)

Syrian director Talal Derki began filming in the city of Homs in August 2011, when there was still a glimmer of hope. He followed a small group of young men for two years, as the cycle of demonstrations and crackdowns spiraled into civil war and Derki's subjects -- and so many Syrians like them -- morphed from protesters to revolutionaries to rebels.

Derki's film, "Return to Homs," has been awarded the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, beating out strong competition. The film's trailer is embedded here:

I have not yet seen "Return to Homs" (I'll work on fixing that so I can report back) but reviewers describe it as focusing narrowly on its handful of youths as they struggle to keep up with the transformation and disintegration taking place around them. The Guardian's Xan Brooks gently criticized it for offering little context for or explanation of broader events. American viewers could certainly use some context, especially to better grasp the crucial distinction between homegrown rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamist insurgents, many of them foreign, fighting for their vision of a conservative religious state.

Still, the politics can be overwhelming to the point of distracting from the core human elements that sparked Syria's crisis in the first place. Perhaps it's appropriate to simply follow some Homs locals, to see the conflict through their eyes, even if they might struggle to see beyond the violence and chaos in front of them. The politics matter, but are often outside the rebels' field of view, and so beyond the film's as well. Their story, of ambition turning to determination and ultimately to despair, doesn't explain the broad Syrian crisis, but is an element we've often forgotten as the story becomes more about peace conferences and diplomatic negotiations and security interests.

Here's an interview the filmmakers conducted with a Utah interviewer during the Sundance festival.

You wouldn't know it from watching this but, as they spoke, thousands of miles away their city of Homs is starving under a brutal military siege.

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