×

Film Review: ‘Of Fathers and Sons’

Sundance-feted Syrian docmaker Talal Derki returns with a vivid and deeply disquieting tour of a jihadist military household.

Director:
Talal Derki
With:
Abu Osama

1 hour 38 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt7519174

The family that prays together stays together, with entirely chilling consequences, in “Of Fathers and Sons,” an intrepid, cold sweat-inducing study of Jihadi radicalization in the home from celebrated Syrian docmaker Talal Derki. Delivering on the auspicious promise of his 2013 debut, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “The Return to Homs,” Derki’s follow-up finds him again visiting his ravaged homeland to examine the making of an anti-government force: this time not spiky rebel insurgents, but unformed young boys under the absolute influence of their Al-Nusra fighter father. The result is as despairing as any portrait of close-knit family and dedicated parenthood can be, adeptly blending sensationalism with domestic intimacy, and sincerely eye-opening in its portrayal of inherited Islamist fervor.

Sure to travel the festival circuit as widely as Derki’s debut did, starting discussions along the way about complicity and trust in documentary filmmaking, “Of Fathers and Sons” has a combination of artistic muscle and frank shock value that should translate into niche distribution. Commercially, there’s tension between the film’s abject bleakness as a viewing experience and it’s ample conversation-piece potential: For starters, the sheer level of personal danger-zone access secured by Derki is something to marvel and puzzle over.

The filmmaker explains at the outset how he convinced Al-Nusra Front member and father of eight Abu Osama that he was a jihadist-sympathizing photojournalist out to make a supportive documentary portrait. Having outlined his ploy, however, Derki subsequently draws less attention to his own presence in proceedings. This proves prudent: Much of the appalling footage captured by cinematographer Kahtan Hassoun’s probing, silently curious camera requires no further commentary or editorialization. It’s for viewers, meanwhile, to parse the tricky disconnect between the film’s occasional, relatable tenderness as a family portrait and the alienating principles of prejudice and violence that ultimately bond this brood above all else.

Abu Osama is plainly adored by his gaggle of male mini-mes, none more fervently imitative in his devotion than rowdy, bullying 10-year-old Osama. (No prizes for guessing some of Abu’s personal heroes: As he explains to camera at one point, he prayed for a son on the day of 9/11, so inspired and elated was he by the events of the day.) The other boys largely follow in Osama’s mold, though young Ayman appears to be made of more sensitive stuff: He admits to being the only one of the group to miss school when Abu Osama stops them going, declaring junior Al-Nusra military training, sharia law and memorization of the Qu’ran more crucial educational priorities.

The family lives on an eerie, barren desert compound in northern Syria, tellingly littered with the debris of conflict, not far from the battle front — even when the boys are playing and roughhousing outdoors, their devastated surroundings lend even their more innocent games an air of conflict. (To say nothing of their queasier hijinks, which extend to playing chicken with a crudely homemade landmine: The boys have been brought up barely to recognize a difference between war and adventure.) That the family’s women are never seen or even acknowledged on screen may be a mandatory stipulation, but also feels entirely apt in this aggressive patriarchy.

Away from the homestead, Derki regularly checks in on Abu Osama’s stomach-churning duties at the front, observing without questioning or vocal judgment as he dispassionately shoots unseen men from his sniper’s nest, chanting “Allah is great” with each kill, or brutally torments captured members of the National Defense Force. Later in the film, a grisly mishap in action alerts his sons to their father’s fallibility, and very real dangers of warfare that have been presented to them as a macho game.

That’s not enough to stop them quite soldiering on in all senses of the word: Some of the film’s most unnerving (and logistically jaw-dropping, in terms of entry gained) footage comes from the grueling jihadist boot camp where Osama and Ayman are eventually sent to march, fight and jump through literal hoops of fire: The formative stages of the dehumanizing physical and psychological breakdown that enables Al-Nusra’s mentality of unquestioning martyrdom are bluntly depicted, though the boys don’t take to it equally.

Some may question whether the film has essential human and political insight beyond its startling exposition of radical process: What “Of Fathers and Sons” shows its audience behind enemy lines isn’t unexpected, but disconcerting for being presented in such rare, close detail. Whether there is empathy in Terki’s gaze is up for debate, as is the question of whether it should be: Either way, notwithstanding the oil and grit on the lens, it’s a clear, vivid and unshakeable view.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Of Fathers and Sons'

Reviewed at Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (competing), Nov. 20, 2017. (Also in Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Germany-Syria-Lebanon) A BASIS Berlin Filmproduktion, Ventana Film production in coproduction with Cinema Group Production. (International sales: BASIS Berlin Filmproduktion, Berlin.) Producers: Tobias Siebert, Eva Kemme, Ansgar Frerich, Hans Robert Eisenhauer. Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous. Co-producer: Talal Derki.

Crew: Director: Talal Derki. Camera (color): Kahtan Hassoun. Editor: Anne Fabini. Music: K.S. Elias.

With: Abu Osama

More Film

  • WGA Agents Packaging Fight Placeholder

    Writers Guild Withdraws State Suit Against Agencies, Refiles in Federal Court

    The Writers Guild of America has withdrawn its state court suit against WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners alleging packaging fees are illegal and re-filed suit in federal court. The WGA also responded to antitrust claims brought against the guild by the three agencies. Those agency suits alleged that the WGA abused its power in [...]

  • Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart

    Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award

    British actor Tim Roth is to receive the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award in recognition of his “exceptional contribution to the art of film.” The ceremony at the Sarajevo Film Festival will be held on Tuesday. He will hold a masterclass on the same day. His first screen role was the lead in the controversial [...]

  • Isabelle Huppert, receives the Honorary Heart

    Isabelle Huppert on Fateful Encounters, the Nature of Acting and Judging a Good Script

    Celebrated actress Isabelle Huppert, speaking at the Sarajevo Film Festival on Sunday, looked back on her illustrious career in a candid discussion that touched on her acting, the many renowned directors with whom she’s worked, and the importance of dialogue. The festival honored Huppert with its Honorary Heart of Sarajevo award “in recognition of her [...]

  • Inauguracion SANFIC 2019

    15th Sanfic Touts Attendance Rise, Hosts Gael Garcia Bernal, Wagner Moura

    Chile’s Santiago International Film Festival (Sanfic) launched its 15th edition Sunday Aug. 18 with three of Latin America’s best-known actors, Gael Garcia Bernal, Wagner Moura (“Narcos”) and Graciela Borges (“La Cienaga”), to which it bestowed career recognition awards. “It’s been 15 years in which we have presented more than 1,400 films,” noted Francisca Saieh, director [...]

  • Sarajevo, Intl. Casting Directors Network Look

    Sarajevo Film Festival and International Casting Directors Network Look to Launch Local Stars

    The Intl. Casting Directors Network (ICDN) and the Sarajevo Film Festival are joining forces to turn the popular Bosnian film fest into a springboard for regional actors looking to launch international careers. After kicking off with a pilot version last year, the initiative expanded to include a series of masterclasses with leading casting directors and [...]

  • Kristen Stewart Underwater

    Watch Kristen Stewart Fight Sea Monsters in 'Underwater' Trailer

    Vampires, ghosts and now sea monsters? Clearly there is no monster actress Kristen Stewart cannot tame. In the first trailer for the submerged thriller “Underwater,” Stewart is a member of a stranded submarine crew. The trailer begins with the radio message: “You are now 5,000 miles from land and you are descending seven miles to [...]

  • Romanian Director Catalin Mitulescu on Sarajevo

    Romanian Director Catalin Mitulescu on Sarajevo Competition Film ‘Heidi’

    A leading figure of the Romanian New Wave, Cătălin Mitulescu has had a heralded career since winning the Palme d’Or for his 2004 short film “Traffic.” His first two features, “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (2006) and “Loverboy” (2011), both premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. He also co-produced and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content