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.