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.
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.
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.
The film doesn’t get any less disturbing by showing how loving Abu Osama is towards his children, and how much they look up to him. Besides, it is quite disheartening to watch the young boys play in an environment so strongly marked by the war – among bombed houses, undetonated mines, abandoned cannons and countless military vehicles. It is particularly uncomfortable to see them challenge each other by stepping close to and directly on homemade explosives.
«The father prayed to God for a child to be born 11th of September – a wish fulfilled six years after the terror attack on the United States.»
Approximately halfway through the film, Abu Osama is hit by the explosion of a mine himself and looses a foot. Nevertheless, this seems to have no affection on his will or ability to fight. In one of the early scenes of the film we see a group of captured soldiers lined up by the al-Nusra warriors, including some heartbreaking close-ups underlining their intense fear in their faces. The film doesn’t tell what is going to happen to these prisoners of war. In Amsterdam, the director said that he believed about a third of them survived and the remaining were executed. Unlike ISIS (which Abu Osama at some point compares to an ill-behaved child of the Taliban, while al-Qaida being the obedient one) this group does not film such executions, one of the producers adds. Towards the end of the film, Osama is being sent to a training camp where he allegedly will spend the next two or three years. This footage, which shows the young boys in hard military training – including bullets fired by the instructors, hitting the ground right next to them – is also indeed highly shocking.
Like fathers, like sons
Except from his voice-over narration in the beginning and the end of the film, Talal Derki himself stays in the background in this observational documentary. Today, he is living in Berlin and probably not very welcome in jihadist circles. Some might react to the fact that his film doesn’t reject more clearly what is being depicted, but the strong and unsettling material nonetheless speaks for itself. The film’s underlying message is not necessarily to show that even jihadists are human, all though this of course also is true. Of Fathers and Sons provides insight into how they think and how they are shaping their next generation of warriors – of which the film gives a daunting and in-depth description.
Of Fathers and Sons is being screened at the Human International Documentary Film Festival in Oslo, held during 7-13 March.