By far the most important relationships of our early lives are those with our parents. Specifically, it’s the relationship, or lack thereof, between father and son that can set the course for a young boy’s entire life. This is shocking to exactly no one. We each can trace a piece of ourselves to what our parents passed down. What can be shocking is the sight of a father passing down abhorrent values with disregard for the safety of his son.
This is the dynamic director Talal Derki (Return to Homs) explores at its most extreme in his Oscar nominated documentary ‘Of Fathers and Sons.’ The film sees Derki embed himself with the family of a man, given the pseudonym Abu Osama, who is actively fighting for Al-Qaeda. In order to reckon with what has become of his native Syria, Derki spends 2 years filming the terrorists who have overtaken it. Over that time, he acquires intimate, harrowing footage of the faces behind radical Islam.
(I’m going to pause here to say that I don’t like phrases “radical Islam,” “Jihadism” or others in that vein. I feel like they give credence to the often racist misconception that Islam preaches violence and terror. Language matters and phrases like these contribute to the vilification of a group of people who are by and large kind and caring. With all that said, these are the phrases used by the film itself and thus, may come up within this review.)
This project was always personal for the director. Derki hoped that documenting the pain afflicted to his home would provide similar relief to that afforded by writing down his nightmares as a child. It’s a trick he learned from his father. It’s the first glimpse we get of just how rooted ‘Of Fathers and Sons’ is in family. As the film progresses, we find that a frightening number of Syrian fathers are passing down something far more sinister.
‘Of Fathers and Sons’ is disturbing at times, so much so that it weighs on the viewer. One scene goes so far as to show the moments before a mass extermination of regime soldiers. The scene itself is powerful, perhaps the lasting image of the whole film. But it elicits a hard question: how complicit is Derki in the atrocities committed in his presence?
A level of cognitive dissonance becomes necessary to appreciate the movie. I wouldn’t blame anyone for wondering if it should ever have been made at all. At best, the film lends voice to a vitriolic cause while empathizing with the victims and even some of the participants who are indoctrinated from birth. At worst, it could be potentially dangerous.
Derki put himself in tremendous danger for the duration of shooting ‘Of Fathers and Sons,’ as any suspicion of his true motives would have seen him killed on the spot. He likely remains in some amount of peril even now, back home in Germany. He’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There exist broader dangers to a film that depicts radicalism with such intimacy. First, is the issue of Islamophobia. At his core, Abu Osama believes his fight is at the direction of God and over the course of the film he does and says some truly vile things behind the shield of that divine authority. While it is easy to see those heinous actions and fault the faith writ large, there is much more to the story.
When viewed with consideration, it is clear that extremism is not taught by the Islamic faith, rather it is taught by leaders of terror cels who have something to gain. But the problem is that consideration is not a skill of a significant number of Americans, and westerners at large, already harboring ill will towards the faith. Does the signal boost provided by an Oscar nomination mean that the film will fall on the eyes of people who will take it as a confirmation of their biases?
Being a mouthpiece for terror is of course a problem as well. It’s no secret that organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS want to get their message out. That message is already, as we see in the film, being passed down to the children of those entrenched in extremism. ‘Of Fathers and Sons’ is heartbroken by this trend but may inadvertently find sympathetic ears for Abu Osama’s story of persecution.
It took a lot reflecting for me to settle on how I feel about ‘Of Fathers and Sons.’ And “settle” might be too concrete to describe where I’m at on this film. The sheer achievement in filmmaking is impressive, that much was immediately apparent. Derki put himself in grave danger to capture something he felt the world needed to see. Also immediately apparent is the uneasiness elicited by the film. Watching a father talk about naming his children after the orchestrators of 9/11 was one of the most unsettling scenes from any movie this year
Ultimately I do think that the merits of this film are enough to at least counterbalance the concerns.
As with anything, there is a lot more nuance to what is happening in Syria and the surrounding countries than is generally understood. ‘Of Fathers and Sons’ digs into that nuance, exploring the role of foreign intervention in making the Cradle of Civilization a breeding ground for extremist groups. If we are to have any hope of stopping terror, we have to know the nature of what we’re fighting and the effect of our current course of action.
A particularly potent scene depicts the hardened resolve of the whole family after a foreign air strike takes out civilian homes. Try telling a kid they’re inherited beliefs are evil when the supposed good guys are bombing his house. Obviously the fight against terror is important, but this documentary is a reminder that every action, no matter how just, has its unintended consequences.
While Derki’s filmmaking never finds sympathy for the extremists he is following, he does find some for their children. These kids are faced with all the danger of their parents without being afforded the choice of walking away. This theme is the most crucial of the film, as evidenced by its influence on the title.
Although in the most extreme way, ‘Of Fathers and Sons’ speaks to role parents play in carving out the core beliefs of their children. It’s a theme that applies to us all. The number one determinant of a person’s religious or political beliefs is that of their parents. We inherit everything from our favorite sports teams to our propensity for violence. If anything, Derki’s film is a powerful call to evaluate what we believe and why, to ensure that what we are passing on isn’t toxic.
‘Of Fathers and Sons’ is blunt. It’s certainly not for everyone. The real and irreversible damage enacted by Derki’s subjects is hard to stomach and should not be viewed without proper reflection. It asks viewers to look evil in the face and try to understand how it came to be. That act alone forces a re-evaluation of preconceived notions. For that reason I think the film is important. 8/10
‘Of Fathers and Sons’ is currently available for streaming exclusively on Kanopy, free to anyone with a public library card.