Director: Talal Derki
Cast: Abu Osama
Watch Of Fathers and Sons online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / BFI Player
“My homeland bears no resemblance to the land I knew,” laments Talal Derki, after visiting Syria to make his new documentary, Of Fathers and Sons. It’s a visit that lasted two years, as Derki embdedded himself with a family inside the war-torn country, witnessing the way its two sons were raised to follow the path of Jihad.
Derki won Sundance’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2014 with The Return to Homs, which explored terrorist recruitment and training in Syria. This follow-up takes on the even more chilling subject of ingrained and inherited extremism, as our young subjects don’t have to travel overseas or even leave the house to be radicalised. That happens on a day-to-day basis, as their father, Abu Osama, instils his own values in them, hoping that they will help him realise his dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate.
Derki shares this daily routine with an astonishing level of access, and yet while that’s an impressive feat in itself, his direction is equally remarkable for vanishing as soon as he’s through their front door; the family never have their guard up and the camera takes us in close to see Osama (13 years old) and Ayman (12 years old) being shaped by their dad. We see them and similar children trained in camps not to flinch in the face of gunfire – a damaging demonstration of this patriarchal extremism passing down prejudice and military procedures from one group of men to the next, innocent generation.
There is a nuance in the way each boy reacts; Ayman, unlike Osama, misses going to school, when Abu decides training and memorising the Qu’ran should be their sole curriculum. Derki places that behaviour next to maths problems on blackboards and, briefly, next to Abu in action on the front, as he fires a rifle and proclaims Allah is great with every squeeze of the trigger.
It’s haunting, powerful viewing, as Derki captures the complexities of this domestic regime. The filmmaker doesn’t have sympathy for or humanise Abu, not quite, but he recognises Osama’s love for his kids and, more disturbingly, their affection for him. Osama’s love, though, is crucially beaten by his fervent belief in al-Nusra, proudly announcing on camera that he has named his boys after Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The question of how Derki gained access to their house, by lying and saying he was a photographer sympathetic to the cause, while remaining a detached, non-interfering observer, is an interesting debate in its own right (read this excellent, frank interview with him “https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/talal-derki-of-fathers-and-sons-syria.html”>here), but the juxtaposition of occasionally sincere tenderness and shocking exposure to violence doesn’t lose its nerve-jangling reality for 100 intense minutes. This is alarming, unique, important viewing.
Of Fathers and Sons is available on Curzon Home Cinema ahead of the Academy Awards on Sunday 22nd February. It is nominated for Best Documentary.