'Of Fathers and Sons' Filmmaker Risked His Life for the Doc — and Still Has Nightmares

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
'Of Fathers and Sons'

Talal Derki, whose documentary is nominated for an Oscar, went undercover to embed with a jihadist group in Syria, an experience that forever changed him.

In recent weeks, filmmaker Talal Derki was at a Q&A session following a screening of his chilling documentary Of Fathers and Sons, about a jihadist in Syria raising his small boys to wage holy war. Derki was told by the moderator he should be nominated for best actor instead, after going undercover as a jihadist filmmaker for 300 days to make his movie.

"In the end, someone had suspicions about me. He was asking to meet me, a dangerous guy," Derki says about narrowly avoiding capture by a notorious Al-Nusra Front Tunisian who calls himself Safeneh. "I was in Germany, but I understood that this time the journey had ended."

Two years earlier, in April 2014, Derki said goodbye to his wife and small child in Berlin, with the understanding they might never see one another again. Through work on his previous film, 2013's The Return to Homs, he had become acquainted with individuals who had since become radicalized, including Abu Hajar Al Houmsi, who had become a leader with Al-Nusra. Derki, a Syrian Kurd who fled the war, was able to convince him that he, too, had converted and was hoping to shoot a promotional doc on the group to be used for recruitment.

Arriving in Idlib, in northern Syria, he focused his cameras on Abu Osama and his sons, Osama, 13, and Ayman, 12, who occupy a plain cinder block structure on the edge of war. There are women in the family, but they are never seen on camera. The closest one comes is when one of the boys threatens to shoot his 2-year-old sister for not wearing her hijab. Observes Derki: "This is the masculine power that destroys the Middle East. This destroyed the Muslim countries. The man creates war, they create a generation ready to die."

Had Derki's true identity been discovered while he was filming, it would have cost him his life. By the time suspicions about him surfaced, he was out of harm's way, yet permanently changed.

"I was a shadow of myself," he says of the psychic toll the production took. "To get killed in that way, even if it's 5 percent likelihood, you cannot live normally as you are. All psychology is broken. I take pills before sleep to not have nightmares and bad dreams and wake up three or four times a night."

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.