In his previous film – award winning The Return to Homs – depicted Syrian filmmaker rebels from the Free Syrian Army during the battles in beleaguered Homs. IN Of Fathers and Sons – which premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in November – he has rarely come close to al-Qaeda's al-Nusra front in Idlib province northwest of the country. The focus this time is the children who represent what Derki himself has referred to as "the lost generation in Syria", as they have never experienced anything but war.
Disguised as a sympathizer. The premise of the documentary is in itself very dangerous for the non-religious filmmaker. For fear of being kidnapped or executed, Talal Derki pretended to be a war photographer who sympathized with the jihadists and their ideology, claiming that after a religious awakening, he wanted to learn more. He told the extremist group that he wanted to make a movie about their lives, and especially the children and what it is like to grow up under these circumstances.
The last statement is largely true. For more than two years, Derki follows al-Nusra warrior Abu Osama and his eight children – some of them more prominent in the film than others.
The father asked God for a child born 11. September – it was fulfilled six years after the terrorist attack on the United States.
In addition to Abu Osama himself, the film's main characters are his two oldest sons: 13-year-old Osama (named after Osama Bin Laden according to his father) and the one-year younger Ayman. Their father, moreover, proudly tells God that he asked God to have a child on the symbolically important date for him on September 11 – a wish he fulfilled six years after al-Qaeda's terror attack on the United States. This son was named after Afghan Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.
Absence of women. The women are virtually absent Of Fathers and Sons, which in a sense makes the title even more appropriate. When he met the audience after one of the screenings in Amsterdam, the director told him that some time during the recording period, Abu Osama asked to interview his wife and just record it. But it was rejected, because even this was considered haram according to their strict rules for women.
However, one scene shows the boys as they throw stones at some presumably peevish girls (albeit outside the pictures pane) who attend a local school. Even the boys are taken out of school as Abu Osama prioritizes teaching them about religion and how to follow in his footsteps as jihadist warriors.
Loving father. The film is no less disturbing because it also shows how loving Abu Osama is to his children and how much they look up to him. Moreover, it is heartening to see the young boys playing in the environment strongly influenced by the war – among bombed-out houses, undone mines, abandoned cannons and ditto military vehicles. Not least is it unpleasant to see them challenge each other by stepping on and off a homemade explosive charge.
About halfway through the film, Abu Osama himself is hit by a mine, and with this he loses a foot. However, this does not seem to hamper his fighting ability or even his ability to fight to any great extent.
The footage of the young boys in hard military training is deeply upsetting.
Captured soldiers. I In a previous scene in the film, we see a group of captured government soldiers lined up for photography by the al-Nusra warriors, with some heartbreaking close-ups (from the filmmaker's side) that underscore their fears. The movie says nothing about what's going on with these prisoners of war. In Amsterdam, the director said he believes that about a third survived and that the others were executed. Unlike IS (which Abu Osama at another time compares to an uneducated Taliban child, while Al Qaeda is obedient), this group does not film such executions, one of the film's producers added.
Towards the end of the movie, Osama is sent off to a training camp, where he is supposed to spend the next couple of years. The footage from here, which shows the young boys in hard military training – including shots with sharp bullets from the instructors hitting the ground right next to them – is also deeply upsetting.
Like fathers, so sons. Apart from his voice-over narration at the very beginning and end of the film, Talal Derki himself plays a reclusive role in this observational documentary. Today he resides in Berlin, and is hardly as welcome in jihadist circles. Some may respond that his film does not take a clearer view of what is portrayed, but the strong material clearly speaks for itself. It is not first and foremost a matter of showing that the jihadists are also human beings – which may be a point so far, albeit a somewhat banal point. Of Fathers and Sons provides insight into how they think and how they shape their next generation of warriors – something the film provides a scary and in-depth description of.