Critic's Notebook: 'Of Fathers and Sons' Is an Intimate Look at Radical Islam

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A very rare opportunity for such an intimate look at how radical jihad perpetuates itself.

'Return to Homs' director Talal Derki goes home to Syria to spend two years observing a radical Islamist family.

A privileged look at how Islamist fervor is passed from one generation to the next, Talal Derki's Of Fathers and Sons embeds with a Syrian family whose many boys aspire to join their father in armed jihad. Serving on one hand as a reminder of the obvious fact that our enemies love their children too, the doc frankly observes how love, in this family, means instilling a yearning for martyrdom and hatred of others. (Not to mention seemingly treating the women in your family as if they don't exist.) Following up on his Sundance grand jury award in 2014, this film should benefit from its unusual perspective, heartbreaking as it is, while it tours the fest circuit.

Derki was able to gain this access to a family in northern Syria's Idlib province by claiming to be sympathetic to their cause — a journalist preparing a pro-jihad film about the area's youth. (In his introductory voiceover, he doesn't say whether he used a pseudonym or other means to guard against the possibility, however unlikely, that his hosts would learn of his previous films.) He befriended 45-year-old Abu Osama, a co-founder of Syria's arm of Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra. Planting himself in Osama's home, he observes both meetings with fellow believers and the way Osama interacts with his many sons, the oldest of whom are Osama, 13, and Ayman, 12.

Early on, Derki offers an example of how a universal parenting situation takes on a different character here. One of the boys has found a small bird and captured it as a plaything, holding it gently and petting it. After a while, an adult says it must be killed, because it likely won't survive on its own after such handling. He suggests cutting its neck as the most humane option, to which a child enthuses "like how you did, Dad, to that man!"

Later, Osama walks hand-in-hand with boys through an old battlefield as they quiz him eagerly about his comrades who martyred themselves here. They play in a bombed-out tank, as any boy would, not far from where live landmines remain hidden.

We get some glimpses of domestic crime and punishment, as the elder Osama bats around boys who have cursed or fought among themselves. But he is undisturbed when they turn their anger on girls. "Go shoot her," he jokes, when one of the boys shouts at a 2-year-old girl walking outside without a hijab. Girls and women are almost entirely absent here, except in a schoolyard scene where boys throw stones at girl students.

We watch as Osama, now outgrowing his rebelliousness, joins Ayman in going off to military training. Children are given camouflage suits and balaclavas, put through drills as demanding as any basic training. Some in the group cry after a day of drills, complaining, "They yell at us all the time, even if we haven't done anything. … Let's run away, boys!" Most stay, of course, and soon they're standing in formation as their trainers shoot automatic weapons aimed inches away from their bodies.

Derki also follows the boys' father in his own work, shooting from just a foot away as he practices his specialty, the disassembly of armed mines. At some point, one of these mines wounds him, and the film charts his recovery as he muses philosophically about the will of Allah and the coming armageddon. As Osama eagerly pushes his boys toward his own fate and much worse, few viewers will mourn his lost limb or the agony it causes.