The War at Home
by Jeff Reichert
Of Fathers and Sons
Dir. Talal Derki, Germany/Syria, Kino Lorber
At the outset of Of Fathers and Sons, director Talal Derki announces via voiceover his plan to return to the northern Idlib province of his Syrian homeland by posing as a war photographer allied to the cause of Al-Nusra, the Syrian chapter of Al-Qaeda that controls the region. The filmmaker would eventually spend a little more than two years there in the home of the garrulous Abu Osama, one of Al-Nusra’s founding members, focusing on two of his sons, thirteen-year-old Osama and twelve-year-old Ayman, both almost old enough to become soldiers and try to help establish a caliphate. After passing a military checkpoint in the film’s opening scenes, Derki arrives at Abu Osama’s house. The two men greet each other warmly.
Of Fathers and Sons is a largely vérité portrait punctuated by interviews and the intermittent appearance of Derki (Return to Homs) himself as an on-camera interlocutor. Derki and cinematographer Kahtan Hassoun remain close to this family, capturing meals, the children in bed or at play, men chatting before heading off to combat, rendered as normal as getting into a car for a morning commute—simple moments in the home life of a family of committed jihadis. There’s something queasy about the experience: we know that Derki has hidden essential facts about himself and his politics to win the trust of his subjects. Yet at the same time, the filmmaker makes it clear from the outset that this subterfuge centers around a few facts: Derki’s an avowed atheist and no fan of Islamism, and the revelation of this might have ended in his death. At the same time, Derki’s affectionate, familiar way with Abu Osama and his children seems far from a mere performance.
Abu Osama is an experienced sapper, so long sequences of the film trail him into debris-strewn landscapes, minesweeper in hand. At one tense point we witness him locate and defuse a landmine. At another, Derki crouches with Abu Osama in a bunker as he scans the battlefield for a target through his rifle’s scope. Never taking his eyes from his weapon, he confesses that he feels the conflict will go on for a long time, and that as soon as his sons are old enough to fight for Al-Nusra, he will send them to war, but only if Al-Nusra doesn’t make the choice for him first. Abu Osama also shares an unexpectedly touching story: after being arrested by the regime, he was driven through his home village en route to another detention facility. Abu Osama claims that as he passed through his hometown and neared his house he could actually pick up his son’s scent. He wondered in that moment if he’d ever hold four-year-old Osama in his arms again. This respite from violence ends with Abu Osama firing on a target and calmly noting that he’s knocked a man off a motorcycle. His gun jams before he can shoot again and finish him off.
Everything we see outside of Abu Osama’s home looks utterly destroyed—buildings lifeless shells, the children play in exploded tanks. A lingering pan across the Syrian landscape from a high vantage point, a rare moment of breath in a tightly wound film, reveals columns of smoke dotting the horizon, residue from other battles. In the context of this hyper-patriarchal, war-wracked community, a schoolyard fight between Osama and another boy takes on a chilling cast. They punch and kick and wrestle each other to the ground with a shell-shocked ferocity. At home, fathers threaten violence on their misbehaving young children even as they jovially pass them back and forth to be fed. The film is as male-centered as its title suggests: the only glimpse we see of a woman is single shot of a mother and child rushing off into the distance. At one point later, we hear one of Abu Osama’s wives wailing in grief off-screen, but she’s shouted down by the men in the frame. The lack of a female presence in this society is a notable structuring absence.
Usually a careful soldier, Abu Osama one day has a lapse in concentration and steps on a mine. Derki catches up with the bruised and scarred man in the hospital as he wakes to realize his left foot has been amputated. The latter portions of Of Fathers and Sons follow the soldier as he reintegrates into civilian life at the same moment that his oldest boys take their first steps toward achieving combat readiness. The scenes of young Osama and Ayman in the training camp are frighteningly familiar—the dusty landscapes, burning sunlight, and rifle-wielding men jumping through obstacles recall Al-Qaeda training videos we’ve seen in mainstream news. Yet now the young fighters aren’t all faceless to us. We’ve seen two of them as boys cuddling quietly together in bed and setting makeshift balloons off into the sky.
Derki has not brought us into this world to create empathy with jihadis, or to find some common ground with believers in a diseased ideology. Nevertheless the resulting document of his period filming Abu Osama and his family feels like a movie his subjects could watch without feeling exploited. A lack of overt authorial intervention or challenging of his subjects’ beliefs, of course, doesn’t mean there isn’t critique laced throughout. Nearly from start to finish, Of Fathers and Sons is a hellscape; violence on the battlefield is brought home and incorporated into the discipline of children, who then enact violence on each other before feeding their rage back into the war machine when they’re old enough to fight. We may feel pangs of grief for Abu Osama at his lost limb or in witnessing his distress after his house has been bombed by coalition forces ruining his library of priceless Islamist texts. We, like the film, can recognize him as a human being while still maintaining our disgust at his beliefs. Of Fathers and Sons may not overtly judge Abu Osama, but it casts a withering glance at a violent ecosystem and the death-obsessed ideology that is the contagion driving it to further ruin.