Of Fathers And Sons


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Of Fathers And Sons
"What makes the film all the more poignant is the fact that the children are, of course, despite all this, like kids anywhere else." | Photo: Talal Derki

Last year, Cries From Syria captured children's perspective of the conflict in the country and we have become all too familiar of footage showing youngsters fleeing conflict with their parents. Now, Talal Derki - returning to the country after his viscerally immediate Sundance award-winning Return To Homs - asks us to consider the children whose families support the radical Islamic cause and the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.

Derki, who lives in Berlin with his family, decides to go back to Idlib in his homeland. Posing as a war photographer sympathetic to the Salafi jihadi cause, he embeds himself with a radicalised family for two years. The director frames the story with brief voiceover, which adds a personal perspective to the film, but for the most part he watches the family - and particularly the children - as they go about their lives.

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Abu Osama is a dedicated member of al-Nusra - a Syrian arm of al-Qaeda - and, in many ways, also a dedicated family man. He has eight kids and Derki particularly focuses on his eldest sons, 13-year-old Osama and Ayman, 12. While their dad is often happy to play with them, we soon see their role model has a disturbing side when one of the kids, after killing a bird he found, announces he slaughtered it just like his father cut a guy's head off.

The director shows the way that education takes a back seat to religious fervour and how Osama shows no fear for his sons' possible enlistment with al-Nusra, declaring: "For every child killed, a thousand will be born." Derki and his cinematographer Kahtan Hassoun also show no fear in the face of the threat to their personal safety - a level of courage which cannot be overstated, considering the director is, in fact, an atheist and Osama is not the 'taking prisoners' sort.

When Hassoun's camera is alone with the kids, we see how elements of their father's hatred have become assimilated into their games, whether it is throwing stones at girls (women are, unsurprisingly, virtually absent from the film) or, even more chillingly, creating their own homemade 'land mine' from a pop bottle - something we come to see is anything but child's play.

What makes the film all the more poignant is the fact that the children are, of course, despite all this, like kids anywhere else, most succinctly illustrated when Ayman segue's from talking about a beating his father dished out to his elder brother for swearing to his belief that he is much better than the elder boy at football.

As the two brothers head off to an army training camp, where they will exercise as adults fire live ammunition around them, it brings a double horror, in that we are witnessing not just a deliberate destruction of innocence but also the potential creation of killers. There is violence in the film but Derki wisely keeps the worst of it off camera. As a group of young soldiers are captured by al-Nusra we only need to look at their faces to guess their fate. And, if children like Osama and Ayman are the future of the country, the question left lingering is whether they will have little choice but to create it in the image of their father or somehow forge a different path. There are indications that things could still go in either direction but their situation - like those guns - is loaded.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2018
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The director embeds himself with a radical Islamic family in Syria to ask what the future holds for their kids.
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Director: Talal Derki

Year: 2017

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Germany, Syria, Lebanon

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