What does it feel like to stand in a street surrounded by rooftop snipers? Your friends have all legged it. The gunmen have just one target in their crosshairs. Your limbs won’t move. This brave front-line doc takes us as close to battle as any of us are likely to get. Director Talal Derki started filming peaceful protests in Homs, Syria’s third biggest city, in August 2011. In that early footage, young men march in the streets singing and chanting with heartbreaking hope (not in their darkest nightmares could they imagine the conflict would end up with 150,000 dead and their city battered into submission). Their ringleader is Abdul Baset Al-Sarout, the 19-year-old goalie of the Syrian national football team. This kid is James Dean and JFK rolled into one, a fireball of energy and charisma. He’s suicidally brave.
Derki keeps the cameras rolling for three years, as Homs becomes the ‘capital’ of the Syrian uprising and Baset a rebel leader and folk hero. The film makes you an eyewitness to the chaos of war. There’s not much context here, which can be confusing. But it’s still gripping. By the end, Baset and his followers are death-scarred and blank-eyed. What are they even fighting for now? Dust and rubble.