Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

Talal Derki’s new feature documentary gives a rare insight into how the sons of the al-Nusra warriors in the Idlib Governorate of Syria are being raised to become the next generation of jihadists.

Of Fathers and Sons

Talal Derki

Germany/Syria/Lebanon

In his previous film – the award-winning The Return to Homs – the Syrian filmmaker closely followed rebels from the Free Syrian Army during the battles in the besieged Homs.  In Of Fathers and Sons – which premiered in November at the international documentary festival in Amsterdam – he got the rare opportunity to get on the inside of the al-Nusra front, located in the Idlib Governorate in the northwest of the country.  This time, the focus is the children that represent what Derki himself has referred to as “the lost generation in Syria”, as they have never experienced anything else than war.

Disguised as a sympathiser

The premise of the documentary in itself is extremely dangerous for the non-religious filmmaker. In fear of being kidnapped or executed, Talal Derki presented himself as a war photographer sympathising with the jihadists and their ideology, claiming that he wanted to learn more after experiencing a religious awakening. He told the extremist group that he wanted to make a film about their lives, and especially of the children and what it is like to grow up under these circumstances. The latter statement is however truthful. For more than two years Derki follows the al-Nusra warrior Abu Osama and his eight children – whereas some of them are more prominent in the film than others.

In addition to Abu Osama, his two oldest sons, 13-year-old Osama (according to his father named after Osama Bin Laden) and the one year younger Ayman, are the essential characters in the film.  Their father is proudly explaining how he prayed to God for a child to be born on the symbolic date of 11th of September – a wish he got fulfilled six years after al-Qaidas attack on the United States.  This son was named after the Afghani Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.

«The premise of the documentary in itself is extremely dangerous for the filmmaker. »

Absence of women

In Of Fathers and Sons, women are basically absent – which makes the title even more appropriate. When meeting with the audience after one of the screenings in Amsterdam, the director explained how he asked Abu Osama, a while into the shooting period, if he could interview his wife only using audio recording. He was rejected, because even this was viewed as haram according to their strict rules concerning women.

Abu Osama appears in Of Fathers and Sons by Talal Derki, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kahtan Hasson and Talal Derki.

One scene shows the boys while throwing rocks towards girls presumably the same age (however out of the frame) who attend a local school.  The boys themselves have been taken out of school, as Abu Osama prioritises to teach them about the religion and how to follow his footsteps as a jihadist warrior.

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