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'Return To Homs' Follows Cycle Of Syrian Demonstrations


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. We have an intensely personal look now at the Syrian city of Homs. It's in the news. Negotiators are trying to arrange delivery of humanitarian aid.

INSKEEP: Residents have suffered years of house to house combat. Entire neighborhoods are wrecked on this battlefield of Syria's civil war.

GREENE: That ruined city looks different in the memory of Orwa Nyrabia.

ORWA NYRABIA: Homs, my hometown, is like, you know, everybody asks where does the rainbow start. Where do the jokes?


NYRABIA: You know, where is the spring of jokes? And the spring of jokes is Homs. It's just that.

GREENE: When he grew up there it was a vibrant city, swept by the winds of the Mediterranean.

INSKEEP: And in its streets, Orwa Nyrabia began producing a documentary film called "Return to Homs."

NYRABIA: You know, when we started making the film, it was all very peaceful and we didn't - none of us had in our imagination the idea that this might turn into a war.

GREENE: That was 2011, when his cameras captured Homs amid the optimism of the Arab Spring.

NYRABIA: All kinds of demonstrations were all made of songs, dancing. Everybody was just revolting in the most pleasant way. And it was so fun.

INSKEEP: Pleasant. Fun. Orwa Nyrabia talks of protestors who were accused of carrying weapons. In response, they mockingly marched around pointing okra or cucumbers like guns. Only later did they realize cucumbers were not enough.


INSKEEP: The camera in this film comes to focus on two young protestors. One is a soccer player named Basset. The other is an activist named Osama. Both wanted peaceful change.

NYRABIA: They believed in that. Basset used to defend and sing for pacifism, but then after the death of two of his brothers and many of his family and the destruction of his family's home, after many painful experiences, he ended up choosing to carry arms.

INSKEEP: The movie follows the rebels through narrow streets, crowded rooms and claustrophobic tunnels. And this distant city in the news becomes overwhelmingly present onscreen. You see Basset leading other protestors in singing.


NYRABIA: He addresses the soldiers of the Syrian army, telling them that they should not be killing their own people and that it's not their job to be following orders blindly and that they should have hearts.


NYRABIA: And that unfortunately didn't work. But the song became quite important and everybody in other cities started to sing it in demonstrations and so on.


NYRABIA: Then later on, it became a little more like songs about courage and fighting.


NYRABIA: Combat kind of songs like what he was living.

INSKEEP: Basset's appearance changes during the film. The way that he physically looks different, it's almost as if he's aging before our eyes, even though not really that much time has passed.

NYRABIA: No. In the beginning of the film he's 19 years old. In the end of the film he is less than 22. So he is very young. He saw so much, too much, I feel. Many Syrians have really lived, I don't know, 10 years in the past two years. It's bewildering. But there's also the question of nutrition, what kind of food is he finding. And so you can see that he starts off with a very fit body.

I mean he's obviously an athlete, he's very strong. Then gradually he's getting much thinner. But he has the heart and then the spirit. You will see in the film that he's always very sad. Something happens, he's on the verge of a serious depression. Next morning he wakes up and there's a new energy. He's singing and laughing gain. And this has been happening for a long time. Now he is still under siege with many others.

INSKEEP: There's an amazing scene that maybe illustrates what it's like to be in this besieged area and there are rebels in two different blown up buildings, separated by some street or open area, and one man is shouting to the guy in the other building, Do you have some tobacco? And he shouts back: Maybe hashish.


INSKEEP: But it appears to me that they can't cross to each other, right? You'd be shot if you went out on the street.

NYRABIA: This is a wide street where the guys are stuck on the other side and want to cross but they cannot because it's really very well observed by regime observers with night vision, with day vision, with all kinds of vision. So they could not. And that's why they dig a tunnel under the street to get back. So they joke about hashish and they joke about tobacco because they don't have anything, basically.

INSKEEP: I know there were several people who were involved in putting together this documentary. You were involved at the beginning, right?

NYRABIA: I'm always involved as the producer of the film, but I was involved in the first half of the shooting as the cinematographer. I did the camerawork. And then when it started to be really almost impossible to get to Basset and Ossama and the guys, a wonderful activist who works in the film who also appears in the film, Katan(ph), became our main cinematographer. He was never - he never studied film. He's never - he's not professional, but I believe he did a job that is amazing, outstanding, because he was there with the guys, with Basset. So the camera doesn't have any distance anymore. It's just a part of the event.

INSKEEP: There's a shot that I'm sure I'll remember for a long, long time about an hour and five minutes in. And it's rebels trying to cross one of these open areas where the Syrian government can fire at them. And they run across one after another after another and finally one of them is hit. And it looks as if he's been hit by a linebacker on a football field. He tumbles over. Was this the cameraman you trained?

NYRABIA: The guy hit with a bullet was Katan's cousin. So you can see in the film that his camera for the first time is stumbling in his hands by falling from his hands. And he's shouting that's my cousin. That's my cousin.


NYRABIA: It's an understatement to say that such kind of cinematography work is brave. It's much more than that. And it's led by an amazing amount of faith in the importance of film, in the importance of passing this image or this vision to the rest of the world.

INSKEEP: What do you think about when you read the news of the peace negotiations going on now?

NYRABIA: I think I'm very hopeful. I'm just waiting to see what will happen. We're also scared of minor, small giveaways will be given. Just like, for example, getting a few food parcels into the siege. Or saying we can get only the sick women out. These kind of partial solutions will lead into them staying in the same situation but will allow the world, the international community and the media to celebrate some progress.

But to them it's not progress. It's just only a partial giveaway.

INSKEEP: As we are talking there is debate over United Nations' effort to get aid into Homs. And you are warning that even if that finally succeeds that we might draw the wrong message from that.

NYRABIA: Definitely it's a necessity to get aid into Homs, but on the other hand, this is not a solution. This is a kind of bluff at the expense of these people. So this is what's feared of in Homs.

INSKEEP: You have a scene in which Basset, one of the main characters, is pointing from a destroyed building - from high in a destroyed building across the street and saying that's the house where I grew up in and it's just a completely wrecked street. This is a city where you grew up and after you left, there you are viewing one more passive film, one more passive video of part of the city destroyed and then another part of the city destroyed. How did that affect you going through all that video?

NYRABIA: It's very difficult. I was there also. I witnessed - I personally witnessed a lot of the destruction. It's always painful but, at the same time, young men like Basset and women like others there in Homs still working, still with a beautiful spirit, they give you the answer to that question. You feel inspired and you feel ashamed if you fall into depression.

You feel that you cannot look at these guys, look how beautiful they are, how energetic and just how high their spirit is, you just believe that we can do better tomorrow morning and we can keep on pushing.

INSKEEP: Orwa Nyrabia, thank you very much.

NYRABIA: It's a great pleasure. Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's the producer of the documentary "Return to Homs." It just won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Listeners to this program may recall NPR's portrait of Homs from a few months ago. You can hear that story again coming up on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION Sunday. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.