'Of Fathers and Sons': Film Review

Sobering study of little lads becoming small soldiers.

Syrian director Talal Derki's follow-up to Sundance winner 'Return to Homs' premiered in Amsterdam and now heads to Park City.

Jihadi family values are intimately examined in Of Fathers and Sons, a strong sophomore outing for Berlin-based Syrian director Talal Derki's some four years after 2013's Sundance-winning Return to Homs. Both films premiered in competition at Amsterdam's IDFA before nabbing high-profile international bows at Sundance, and Derki's chronicle of how young boys are set on the path towards ideologically driven soldiering can expect plentiful festival bookings and niche theatrical play over the next few months, with small-screen exposure also a given.

Overcoming what he describes in his opening voiceover as "immense fear," Derki riskily posed as a jihad-supporting war photographer to infiltrate the home of Abu Osama  — a fortysomething member of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, which last year merged with similar groups to become Tahrir Al-Sham. One of the most active militias in northern Syria, Al Nusra regards the more internationally notorious ISIS with contempt, though both share the same goal of establishing "a fair Islamic caliphate" across the Middle East.

Abu Osama scathingly and tellingly compares ISIS with a disobedient child; it's obvious from the start that his household is built firmly on the concept of filial devotion. Burstingly proud of his eight sons (his wife and any daughters are never seen, occasionally heard and seldom mentioned), several of whom are named after Jihadi heroes, Abu Osama is determined that all will follow him onto the front lines of civil war against the Syrian government.

Largely adopting fly-on-the-wall discretion, Derki gamely accompanies Abu Osama in his military activities, such as operating as a sniper from a foxhole. The boisterous patriarch also risks life and limb as a deminer: "Make sure you will walk exactly in my footsteps," he advises a co-worker as he treads carefully across a mined field. And much of his interaction with his kids imparts an identical message with wider applications. These boys are growing up with fierce armed conflict on their doorstep, and what might be seen as harmless horseplay in a different context now comes across as the preliminary psychological preparations for what awaits them in their early teenage years.

The oldest boy, Osama ("Abu Osama" is actually a kind of nickname, traditional in Arabic societies, meaning "father of Osama"), is around 12 when the film begins — with his cheeky grin, he's a dead ringer for a pre-pubescent Sean Penn. By the end, some two years later, he has, as Derki puts it in his narration, "been led down the path of death." Sent to a camp for "Sharia studies and military training" along with (at least) one of his brothers, Osama happily dons a balaclava and fatigues, evidently a willing participant in what his father and the other male figures of influence in his life unquestioningly regard as a just and holy war.

An admirably audacious feat of documentarian access, Of Fathers and Sons is of obvious topical and anthropological interest as a glimpse into the gradual radicalization of young males and the deep community ties which underpin the process. While unambiguously disapproving in its overall tone (K.S. Elias' electronica-dominated score sounds warning notes of downbeat dread), it commendably avoids presenting Abu Osama as a two-dimensional fanatic, instead intelligently probing the roots of his anger and passionate involvement in armed struggle.

"How does a man feel to see his country destroyed before his eyes?" he asks at one point, and later, during a tour of an improvised bomb factory, describes his activities as "revenge for the children of Homs," the city whose destruction was the focus of Derki's reportage-heavy debut.

Abu Osama pays a heavy price for his engagement: His left foot is blown off by a mine just after the halfway mark, and his raw agony as he recovers at home (with little access to palliatives) causes distress not only for his adoring family but also, perhaps surprisingly, for the viewer. Regardless of the subterfuge involved in the film's production, it's a mark of Derki's humanism that he should be able to evoke a measure of sympathy for an individual many audience members would generally view with contempt or even disgust.

Production companies: BASIS Berlin FilmproduktionVentana Film
Director-screenwriter: Talal Derki
Producers: Hans Robert EisenhauerAnsgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias Siebert 
Executive producers: Dan CoganGeralyn White Dreyfous, Jenny Raskin
Cinematographer: Kahtan Hassoun
Editor: Anne Fabini
Composer: K.S. Elias
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: BASIS Berlin Filmproduktion, Berlin

In Arabic
98 minutes