Abdel Basset Sarout joined the Syrian resistance against the regime of Bashar al-Assad through public appearance at protest rallies in Homs, June 2011, when military crackdowns on public demonstrations became increasingly violent. He became the icon of the resitance in Homs, where he lived and worked as a goalkeeper for the Syrian national soccer team before joining activists.
Basset gave song to the rallies, commanding the attention and support of thousands with his appearances. A star player at merely twenty-years old, his career trajectory was bright but depended on collusion with the regime. He could have used his influence to stop the protests. He rejected an offer from Assad specifically to do that. Instead, he joined the ranks of the rebels, focusing on the goal of toppling Assad, putting his soccer career aside.
Peaceful demonstrations became rallies in support of the armed resistance. There was excitement at the beginning when mobilization was possible: roads and utilities remained intact for months. Regime military began to recede in a wave of defection from the top down, providing strategy and arms to the resistance. Outside funding streamed in and Basset took up arms with hundreds of fighters while continuing to rally civilian protesters. Old Homs became the central arena of the resistance.
Residents became refugees under heavy shelling between Free Syrian Army and regime forces. Government buildings were occupied by FSA forces. The victories gave momentum and legitimacy to the resistance, but it did not take long before Assad commanded airstrikes across the degraded city, pounding out remaining civilian populations and commercial sectors, splintering the rebels, cutting off roads and utilities, degrading morale.
Basset forever lost the praise of his audience as the city of Homs became deserted. He could only sing with the soldiers that defend the territory left to him wherever he was at the onset of Assad’s siege against the rebels, February 2012. Through endurance and experience, Basset became a commander of men with only one territory in mind: Homs.
The film by Talal Derki, Return to Homs carries you through this journey, fixed on Abdel Basset Sarout as he slides into hell. You see his soul torn with a sense of duty and his unflinching eye for the goal of toppling Assad. You see his persona shift from swaggering activist and singer to rocket toting rebel with a broken spirit.
His songs that once captivated thousands of protesters, shaming Assad and laying claim to revolution, became morale boosting eulogies and somber calls for resilience in the face of deep trouble for the few close-by soldiers that could join him. Somehow, despite the deep low points, he manages to continue the fight, leading new troops when so many of his comrades had died or abandoned him.
The film does not show you the struggle between outside, non-Syrian fighters like al-Nusra and its splintering successor, The Islamic State. It does not express the connection between terrorist group Hezbollah and regime forces. It does not exactly show Basset’s connection to the Free Syrian Army. He seems rather like an armed troubadour, attracting followers with bravado, charisma and good looks. He is an icon of the legitimate rebel: a native Syrian youth demanding freedom at all costs.
Handheld camera video is patched together in apparent chronological order, following Basset and his crew throughout the protests, the military crackdown, the rebel gains in Homs, and the siege to retake it. You see and hear airstrikes, gunfire, explosives, destruction and desperation with total intimacy. The images collide as if it were a dream, as if you are recollecting scenes from the distant future.
Without a strong narrative, without any truly recurring characters but Basset himself, it is somehow telling of the whole Syrian Civil War. This small part contains the whole. It is alarming and it is impossible to ignore: how can I be so ignorant of the devastation? People are slaughtered because of international political gridlock and media inattention. It is a shameful scene.
Return to Homs leaves on a cliffhanger with Basset singing from the back of a pick up truck, bound for a new mission to break the siege of Assad in Homs in late 2013. Rebels holding on there were starving and losing ground, everything in ruins after more than two years of resistance. Basset was evacuated from Homs in May of 2014, under the protection of The United Nations along with thousands of rebels carrying rifles. Homs is now under total control of the Assad regime as part of that UN deal.