OzAsia Festival Review: Of Fathers & Sons (Syria, 2017) lifts the veil on religious extremists

Of Fathers & Sons should come with a warning. This is likely to induce nightmares even though it’s not strictly a horror film. It is however, a horrifying documentary that chronicles a religious zealot and his young, jihadist-in-the-making sons. The result is a visceral and eye-opening look at this largely-unknown world.

Filmmaker, Talal Derki is no stranger to the Syrian conflict. Born in Damascus, his previous film, Return to Homs is an award-winning documentary about a young rebel. In Of Fathers & Sons the filmmaker embarks on a dangerous mission, posing as a war photographer. Derki pretends to be sympathetic to extremist Islamic ideology. He embeds himself with a family in Northern Syria for almost two years.

Forty-five-year-old bomb specialist, Abu Osama rules the family. He is a founder of Al-Nusra, the Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda, which control this part of war-torn Syria. Abu is unflinching in his devotion to the cause. He believes in the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and Sharia Law. He named his sons after terrorists. The two who feature the most are 13-year-old Osama and 12-year-old Ayman.

Abu has two wives and we can assume some daughters. None of the females appear in this documentary. Abu denied requests to interview the women because he considered it harem or forbidden. To us in the West this is a sign of the oppressive patriarchy enforced in this household.

Derki takes an observational and rather objective tone in this work. He trains his lens on the family and captures this man and his boys in a cinéma vérité style. Derki only gives some brief narration to this story. While this means he isn’t obtrusive here, there is a lot of assumed knowledge because the proceedings lack appropriate context at times.

What the audience do bear witness to is the senseless existence of these young boys. Removed from formal education, they spend their days reciting the Quran and becoming indoctrinated by their father and his fanatical friends. Even though they are pre-pubescent, they undertake gruelling military training. Their father has sealed their fate and is willing to sacrifice their lives for his cause.

Of Fathers & Sons is a film of many contrasts. On the one hand there are violent and brutal scenes where the boys repeat what they’ve seen the older men do. This includes playing with homemade bombs, throwing stones and fighting amongst themselves. On the flipside, there are moments of real tenderness between Abu and his sons. It is obvious that they all love each other.

Of Fathers & Sons is a raw and difficult film to watch but it’s also an essential one. Derki puts his life on the line to give us an intimate look at an intensely private and disturbing world. You will be shocked, angered and scared because this cycle of violence shows no end. These poor boys have no choice and are forced to grow up and become men sooner than imagined. It’s scary stuff.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Of Father’s & Sons screens as part of Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival from 27th October. For more information, including screening times and tickets head HERE.

Natalie Salvo

My writing portfolio can be found at: https://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com/