Regular updates during the Syrian civil war have detailed the shifting fortunes of the major factions, reported on battles for vital territory, tallied the mounting civilian casualties, and charted the humanitarian and refugee crises. The steady stream of reportage could lull us into thinking we wave a handle on the situation, that we understand what is happening in Syria and what motivates the various players. But while these reports at first can shock, and inspire active concern, over time the ceaseless flow and detached remove of the accounts ten to habituate us to the situation, as the reality turns into an “ongoing news story.” An initial sense of outrage toward injustice in Syria is pacified, eroded by the familiar, hedging, filtered, moderating reports we read.

Return to Homs

Into this desensitized journalistic context, self-described media activist Talal Derki launches an explosive assault with Return to Homs, one of a select few nonfiction entries in New Directors / New Films 2014. Eschewing impartial reportage for visceral on-the-ground sensation, the Damascus-born Derki drops the viewer in media res with handheld camerawork, covering (among other things) shootouts that are as adrenaline-pumping as any Hollywood action movie. But the blood is real, the bullets kill, and whoever’s behind the camera better get out of the way of that tank.

In lieu of analyzing conditions across Syria and the historical roots of the conflict, Derki focuses on the city of Homs, a hotbed of dissident activity that he visited on and off during three tumultuous years, 2011 to 2013. Derki cobbled the film from his own footage, along with video shot by other participants in the war. He embeds himself in a local revolutionary cadre, adopting a hybrid role that fuses the observational perspective of a reporter in a war-torn hotspot and the active engagement of a committed member in their ranks.

Return to Homs

On his first visit to the city, Derki finds a youthful non-violent social change movement openly parading through the streets, ebullient with the collective certitude that a new and better order is right around the corner. On subsequent visits, Derki finds the buoyant spirits have fallen as the revolutionaries have dug in for the long slog, their pacifist inclinations shed as their peaceful overtures were met with repression and violent retribution by the central government. Basset’s all-male unit transforms from a ragtag band of idealistic youths into battle-hardened seen-it-all vets, urban guerrillas slipping like ghosts through the crumbling architecture of their leveled neighborhood. Leading the group is the charisma-oozing star-goalkeeper-turned-rebel-leader Basset, a soulful 19-year-old with curly locks and a voice that could melt butter.

Framing the events in ways that recall war films, Derki presents frenetic gun battles and artillery assaults, capturing on sometimes grainy digital film his “characters” as they scramble on the battlefield or drag fallen comrades to safety amid the crackle of enemy fire. Balancing these intense scenes are the calmer intervening moments, during which the men horse around or affect bravado or, more rarely, turn contemplative as they muse on the situation. Basset emerges as a heroic figure and the film’s potent emotional core, a stand-in for the aspirations of the Syrian everyman. With death-defying—if not suicidal—bravery, he comes off as a first-into-battle leader who longs both to repair his country and to return to a simple life.

Return to Homs

Derki makes plain his sympathies with the rebels, and beyond that, he inserts himself directly into the film. Certain sequences are accompanied by his voiceover explaining the extent of his involvement in events. Others feature him on screen taking part in the action and talking as a close friend to Basset. There is clear advocacy (some might say propaganda) in this approach, but unlike many other documentarians who cast themselves, Derki brings less ego and stridency to the screen. Instead of trying to tip the scales on centuries-old partisan divides with hyperbole or snark, Derki presents an intimate, inside view of distant events in order to electrify us with their vivid reality and awaken new depths of emotional and social engagement.

Return to Homs carries the risk of sensationalizing current events and feeding our insatiable appetite for close encounters with violence from the safety of a movie theater. Yet it also presents a perspective on a pressing reality that may otherwise escape our attention. A film like Return to Homs can endure as an accessible and enduring account of the Syrian war, offering a powerful, meaningfully shaped narrative that also speaks to our era of citizen media.