Posing as a journalist sympathetic to the jihadist cause, director Talal Derki returned to his homeland in northern Syria and received near-unprecedented access to the Al-Nusra Front for over two years. But the documentary Of Fathers and Sons grapples with the sociopolitical realities of Syria and the effects of this terrorist organization on a micro rather than macro level.
Derki’s focus lands on Abu Osama, one of the founders of Al-Nusra, and his four sons—chiefly 13-year-old Osama and 12-year-old Ayman—as they go about their mundane daily routines. These kids are like any other kids, eager to play and quick to fight, but when Abu mentions that his prayers were answered when his younger son, Mohammad-Amar, was born on September 11, 2007, we begin to understand the inevitability of so many boys in this region of the world submitting to the man’s twisted ideology.
As children throw rocks, play in hollowed-out tanks and rundown, abandoned buildings, barely flinching when missiles land in the distance, this post-apocalyptic landscape takes on a terrifying sense of normalcy. After slaughtering a wounded bird, Abu’s youngest son, a toddler named Khatab, runs inside their home to gleefully tell his father what he’d just done. Soon after, Osama fills in the details, proudly proclaiming: “We put his head down and cut it off, like how you did it, father, to that man.” The actions in these scenes are unsettling, but it’s the absolutely calm and casual manner in which everyone behaves that makes them far more disturbing.
Throughout the film, violence is foreshadowed but kept primarily off screen; even Abu losing his left foot while dismantling a mine is revealed by a hard cut from his kids playing with homemade explosives in plastic bottles to the bloody aftermath of his accident. Here, the excessive brutality and prevalence of death is rooted in the everyday language and mundane activities of an entire town. Violence has been normalized, and internalized by even the youngest children to such a degree that seemingly innocent conversations are far more bone-chilling than any explosions or gunfire could ever be.
Derki’s verité approach presents Abu in his everyday environment, and as such risks humanizing the man, but the audience eventually gains a complex understanding of the banality of his evil. You may ask, what else can rise here from the ashes of abject poverty, hopelessness, and endless, cyclical destruction if not evil disguised as something normal, something righteous?
The great tragedy of the film, though, is the predestined fate of Abu’s children. Derki conveys the direness of their inexorable march to their fathers’ footsteps, and no scene does so more succinctly and effectively than one toward the end: of the children riding inside a van and gazing wondrously at two abandoned Ferris wheels. Only later do we realize that their destination is a jihadist boot camp, where Osama and dozens of other kids his age don masks and camo gear as they’re pushed around and shot at in preparation for suicide bombings and inevitable warfare against agents of the West. They pine for yet unknown joys of youth, but in a land torn apart by eternally escalating war, childhood itself becomes a luxury that no one can afford.