Almost from its first frames, director Talal Derki’s (The Return to Homs) latest, Of Fathers and Sons, feels like a movie that shouldn’t exist. The filmmaker spent two years pretending to be an Al-Qaeda sympathizer so he could pose as a war photographer to get close to Abu Osama, an enthusiastic Syrian jihadist and proud father of many sons, all of whom he fully expects to follow in his extremist footsteps.
When we watch Abu with his family (his wife is never seen on camera, and we’re never quite sure if he also has daughters), it’s almost possible to forget that he is an absolute soldier in the war against anyone who is not a practicing, faithful Muslim. He’s loving, charming and quick to laugh. But he also wants his sons to see themselves as freedom fighters who would gladly give their lives as suicide bombers or in war, and he sends the oldest two (ages 12 and 13) to a training camp where live rounds of ammunition are fired just inches from them as they engage in military drills, just to get them used to being shot at.
Even before they go to camp, the boys’ version of playing involves making homemade land mines and cutting the heads off live birds that happen to fly into their home. They are a rough and sometimes brutal bunch whose belief system is fully in line with their fathers, and as a viewer, we feel stunning and powerless to stop them from following the violent path that seems to be their destiny. Director Derki is given seemingly complete access to every meeting his host family engages in with Al-Qaeda members, and when Abu is seriously maimed while fighting, the family dynamic shifts substantially as he recovers, and the oldest boys head off for training, where one of the two fails to make the grade as a holy warrior.
There’s a particular moment that typifies Of Fathers and Sons when Abu walks us through the names of his sons, including one named Osama (after Bin Laden) and another named after one of the 9/11 hijackers. He’s a beaming parent, so proud of all his boys; but to many, he’s also the enemy. That’s where this movie exists, and it’s impossible not to feel uncomfortable and occasionally horrified by it all. Since the film exists, we know Derki extracted himself from the situation safely, but that in no way decreases the tension we feel when someone wonders who he is and why he’s filming everything (or even just gives him a funny look). Nothing in this documentary was meant for Western eyes, and that’s why it’s essential viewing.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It also will screen on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 4:45pm at the Music Box Theatre as part of its ongoing Oscars Spotlight: Documentaries series.
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