Of Fathers and Sons. 2018. Directed & Written by Talal Derki.
Starring Abu Osama al-Masri, Ayma Osama, & Osama Osama.
Basis Berlin / Ventana Film / Cinema Group Production / Impact Partners
Not Rated. 99 minutes.
Father Gore admires all films, no matter their genre. There’s no doubt this remains mostly focused on horror. Talal Derki’s documentary isn’t traditional horror, it’s a horrific tale. Isn’t real life horror the most chilling of all? True crime films and series’ about serial killers are always unsettling. What’s scarier are the documentaries— regardless of focus— which dig deeper into the fabric of our society’s skin to help reveal the cancerous tissue growing below, sometimes without our knowledge, sometimes due to our ignorance.
Of Fathers and Sons is Derki’s honest, raw look at an issue so many of us already know is pressing: terrorism. The director approaches his material by immersing himself directly in the world of Salafi jihadism, by spending over two years documenting Abu Osama al-Tunisi— founder of the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda— and his family, along with other members of ISIL in Abu’s inner circle. Derki returned to his homeland to shoot the documentary, and actually put himself in danger by pretending to be sympathetic to their cause, allowing him the access many others would never attain.
Within Abu’s inner circle, the true terror of terrorism emerges.
The documentary subtly questions how the West raises its children, too. Although the United States and Canada— despite what right-wing and conservative fear mongers will try to convince you— are not breeding grounds for foreign terrorists, both countries have their own dangerous forms of extremism, and have things in common with Syria. Maybe if we, as Westerners, had experienced a political superpower like America treading all over our homes for decades, killing our friends / families, disrupting nearly every aspect of our societies, we might see our children growing up in different ways.
For the current historical moment, Of Fathers and Sons shows us a corner of the world, plagued by endless social and political issues, where raising children has become more akin to the process of raising soldiers. The documentary makes clear that, for Abu and many like him, this is now simply an accepted part of life.
“… toward the land of men
who long for war.”
A significant portion of the documentary involves the loss of innocence in youth. Of course it’s largely centred on Abu’s involvement with ISIL. There remains an overall sense of innocence being lost, and there’s little doubt Derki means to focus on the children. An early scene sees Abu’s kids telling their father they cut a bird’s head off. The scary part is, the boys compare what they’ve done to what their father did in 2015: behead four Bedouin men. They celebrate their accomplishment, seeing their actions as imitative of their father’s supposedly heroic conquests.
Later, Abu takes his kids on a walk near a minefield, recounting the “martyred” friends he lost while fighting. The kids play in a rundown tank, the same as other kids their age in another part of the world would play on a jungle gym at the park— this shows the viewer how equipment for jihadist wars is prioritised above food and other things for the kids / families.
Something that connects Syria and the Western world is the image below of a Ferris wheel on the horizon. Abu’s boys pass by the dilapidated wheel on their way to and from terrorist training camp, as well as other locations dominated by the presence of ISIL in their homeland. The wheel stands like a skeleton in the middle of nowhere. Contrast this joyless Ferris wheel image with the kids in America who go to actual fairs, or even Walt Disney World. It’s a tragically disparate view of how children grow up in certain parts of the East v. the West. Once more, a symbol of innocence lost. Not surprising to see how these hopeless boys lives when their father proclaims: “God willing, for every child killed, a thousand will be born.” In the end, the sons of jihadists aren’t children so much as they’re soldiers in waiting— means to violent ends.
“Children are like glass—
if it breaks, it’s broken.”
Derki’s documentary challenges us to look at the way we’re bringing up the next generations. The director never brings questions about the West to the fore, yet it’s impossible not to compare our society to the one in which Abu’s boys live. An unsettling scene watches the kids at terrorist training camp. They’re given the appropriate clothing— camouflage, ISIL bandanas, ski masks— and sent onto a training field where they lie in the desert dirt having an assault rifle fired off next to them. It’s a literal numbing of the senses to violence, same as the overall figurative ideological numbing Abu and other men like him put their sons through.
Something else chilling? America’s kids go through active shooter drills. While they may not have guns shot off near their heads they’re having experiences that can / will traumatise rather than teach. The results aren’t drastically different. Not when American schools hang posters riffing off “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and other horrors.
In the documentary, tiny children barely able to walk / talk are taught the Qur’an by their ISIL-devoted fathers. They live in the midst of men who casually keep AK-47s slung around their shoulders while sitting around the house. Is it really a world away from the evangelic Southern U.S.? Sure, though not by much. Abu’s home life with his boys feels like a cross between the documentary Jesus Camp and an NRA video. You can imagine extremist libertarians at home doing the same kind of things, pumping their own children full of the Bible and falsely telling them the 2nd Amendment is a ‘God-given right’ to which they’re obligated solely because they were born on American soil.
Ideology is ideology— doesn’t matter from which country the ideas originate.
The most dominant worldview shared by the men in this film, and most other terrorists anywhere in the world— whether a doomsday cult like Aum Shinrikyo or incels shooting up their workplace or angry white men carrying assault rifles into black churches— is the ideology of misogyny. The misogyny of jihadists is ingrained early on in their young offspring, which we see much of throughout Of Fathers and Sons.
The kids throw rocks at girl outside of school. Abu ‘jokes’ how his sons should kill their little four-year-old cousin for not wearing a hijab, depicting how a woman’s place in their society is demarcated clearly right from birth. After Abu has one of his legs blown off he returns home to the howling cries of his family. His view of women, particularly his wife, is clear in how he comforts his boys and tells them not to be sad, in the same breath yelling at his wife to “quiet down” her crying. As expected, we see little to none of his wife in the documentary, symbolic of the Salafi jihadist perspective re: women. It’s in this environment, where few women exist and those who do are kept relatively silent, that Abu’s boys and their friends grow, like wretched plants watered with hate.
First, they’re taught to hate women, then they’re taught to hate the world.
“If you see a bird in a cage,
Nothing easy about watching Of Fathers and Sons, not for those with a conscience.
Right-wing viewers will take the documentary as more evidence of what needs to be done by their warmonger politicians. It’s far more complicated and complex than any of that reactionary nonsense. Derki shows us how dire the situation is for coming generations. He also tries to illustrate that a solution to terrorism isn’t as easy as the American government hopes by sending drones and air strikes over to destabilise various regions, which only creates more men like Abu who celebrate the September 11th attacks and name their children proudly after Al Qaeda leaders.
Maybe the film doesn’t root out every bit of jihadist ideology or how it manages to spread. It does do a fantastic job of showing the never ending breeding ground where it continues to fester. The access Derki gets alone is compelling, as we watch him navigate a dangerous landscape just to get footage— for instance, the end credits feature a mention of a firm specialising in hostage insurance. Most people gather their perspective about jihadists through the narrow scope of Western media. Here, we’re given a raw, unfiltered look into the lives of these men, better than what 95% of journalists from English-speaking countries who’ve tried capturing these types of stories have given us. Of Fathers and Sons doesn’t have all the answers. It at least attempts to honestly present the world of terrorism without bias.
Derki’s not seeking to justify a right / left wing political perspective. He only aims to give us a look at the environment in which jihadists live and raise their sons. He leaves us to make up our own minds about whether terrorism everywhere is really, at its core, all the same. The bottom line is, no matter how terrorist sentiment spreads and no matter from which ideology it ultimately stems, the results are all the same: pain, death, suffering, and the loss of innocence across generations.