To anyone outside of Syria, the battle ranging on between President Bashar Al-Assad's armed forces and various rebel factions is mainly an abstraction. That makes director Talal Derki's "Return to Homs," which opened the 25th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam on Wednesday, something of a revelation: It portrays the struggle from the inside, from about as far from the filter of mainstream media as one can get, capturing tense shootouts and the extremes of revolutionary spirit in unnerving detail. Centered on a handful of fighters in the largely abandoned city of Homs, with footage smuggled out of the country, Derki's angry, fragmented portrait constitutes a lonely shout in the darkness.
Though the events in question carry a definite immediacy, "Return to Homs" actually covers two years worth of events. Stretching back to 2011, Derki finds a pair of activists in the heat of the Syrian uprising: Local 19-year-old soccer star Abdul Basset Saroot, who leads exuberant anti-Assad chants at the center of town, and media activist Ossama al Homsi, a quieter figure eager to wield his camera in service of the revolution.
These images form a striking contrast with later scenes, shot as recently as last summer, in which the equation has dramatically shifted. Discarding his ideals, Saroot transforms into a full-on militant insurgent, blasting away at Assad's forces from makeshift firing holes in deserted buildings, while al Homsi winds up detained by the government and absent from the rest of the story. That leaves Saroot at the center of a drama with dwindling resources, fighting from a stronghold in the empty city with an existential weariness and trapped in the limbo of his own mission with no end in sight.
Derki narrates Saroot's tale as he returns to the city several times, explaining its connotations as the epitome of the Syrians' plight. The filmmaker -- who inherited the production after the film's producer, having shot much of the earlier footage, fled the country, places the bleak portrait in poetic terms. Exploring "the city which has become the most precious thing I have," he finds that it has quickly devolved into a post-apocalyptic outpost exclusively populated by Saroot, his colleagues and a smattering of others. Given the extreme nature of their conditions, there's a darkly comical element to the glimmers of humanity they manage to retain. In one scene, a group of fighters shout out to one of their colleagues huddled behind another hole in the wall to find them some tobacco. "You'll have better luck finding hashish," he replies.
"Return to Homs" prioritizes such closeness with the insurgency over any journalistic analysis of their situation. On the outskirts of town with his family, Saroot displays a tenderness that belies his militant energy, showing the essence of the conflict between pushing ahead and attempting to flee. There's no sugar-coating here: In an alarming moment, the camera captures Basset in extreme close-up as he contemplates another battle, displaying the intimacy of the situation as no media report could. "Do you think I'll have time to shave before I die?" he wonders.
Despite its gripping qualities, the movie's limited perspective can be a source of frustration. While Derki casts himself as a witness to the tale, much of the footage was shot by other men -- including Homs-based video activist Khatan Hassoun -- and so the role of the cameraman in the events at hand is never fully defined. Blatantly avoiding an empirical look at the situation, "Return to Homs" contains no snippets of news broadcasts or neat captions detailing the political circumstances that have caused the uprising, which liberates the material, but also limits its ability to place the scenario in context. There's an unmistakably rushed quality to the collage of material despite the time that was spent gathering it.
However, that very same characteristic imbues the project with the franticness of the survival story at its center. Derki creates the sense that that this is the only kind of movie possible under the circumstances; as rebel fighters crawl through claustrophobic tunnels in a mad dash to rescue their comrades from the city, the setting turns into a ramshackle metaphor for the movie's existence.
Through it all, Saroot and his colleagues evade gunfire from faceless villains, leaving the door open for another portrait that delves with equal detail into the complex moral transgressions unfolding on the other side of the battlefield (if such a thing is even possible). But the invisibility of the threat illustrates the sheer absence of a visible resolution. Unlike Jehane Noujaim's Cairo-set "The Square," which portrays the revolutionary mindset as a constant, forward-moving phenomenon, "Return to Homs" reveals a far more frenzied, visceral struggle that a handful of driven warriors continue to endure at all costs. With its climactic freeze frame, Derki captures the men's uneasy combination of desperation and triumph in a single image: With nowhere left to go, they still push ahead.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While not exactly a commercial project, the topicality of the material and its shocking content should elevate the movie's profile at festivals around the world and could lead it to gain acclaim akin to the Oscar-nominated Palestinian portrait "5 Broken Cameras" last year. In the hands of the right distributor, it has the potential to become a major conversation piece.