Syrian-born filmmaker Talal Derki (“The Return to Homs”) lives in Berlin but returned to his conflict-wrecked homeland, under the guise of a jihad-sympathetic war cameraman, to film an Al Qaeda family for two years. The resulting documentary, the Sundance award-winning and Spirit awards-nominated “Of Fathers and Sons,” makes for grimly compelling viewing in its unprecedented access, and insight into fevered Islamism’s particular stranglehold. As with any tightknit clan, what’s passed from loving parent to adoring child is usually sacred. It’s just that in this case that intimate legacy is, tragically, a cult of death.
Derki’s subject, living remotely in the bombed-out north of the country, is fortysomething Al Nusra Front leader Abu Osama. A stocky, bearded husband and father, he talks matter-of-factly about the coming world war and the surety of a caliphate, beams in the presence of his lively sons, and is all business when focused on his particular specialty: locating and disposing of mines. (He also makes them.) The oldest of his eight children, 13-year-old Osama, eager to follow in his dad’s warrior footsteps, and 12-year-old Ayman, who takes to study and school, were filmed in their transition years from pint-sized roughhousers to balaclava-wearing trainees in a camp.
The culture of violence is pervasive. Taught to believe females shouldn’t be seen outside the house, the boys throw rocks at passing schoolgirls. A captured bird we see in one scene is slaughtered (off-camera), we learn, by one of the sons, whose brother gleefully reports that it was a beheading “like you did, dad.” (Osama spent time in prison, although we never learn for what.) Most of the boys can’t wait for firearm training.
Derki’s ruse to secure Abu Osama’s trust — even his only crew member, a cameraman, didn’t know — involved a stated desire to get better acquainted with religion. The secret is never exploited for morally perilous suspense. But there are scenes that skirt the edge of what we don’t want to see in a documentary and are worried we will, including a moment in which the father is trying to finish off a motorbiker with his long-range rifle, and a “The Hurt Locker”-meets-Huckleberry Finn scene in which the boys are assembling their own plastic-bottle bomb to play with, then later kicking it around outside.
The nuances in Derki’s portraits are what deepen the elements that could easily have been a distancing turnoff. Abu Osama’s spirits regarding perpetual war in a fractured country are a fragile thing — you don’t entirely believe him when he sighs how it’s going to take time to win, that he can’t lose hope — but his joy is clearly his kids, even as his chosen life strives to rip them from their childhood. He’s even less convincing when he affirms that Al Nusra won’t send them to battle too early. A life in jihad has a way of altering those certainties, though, as circumstances dictate halfway through the film.
The sons, meanwhile, whether scrapping in the neighborhood or in fatigues at camp getting bullets shot near their heads or feet — that’s part of the training — always look like awkwardly tough-acting kids. Huddled together at night under blankets, complaining about the adults’ yelling, one wonders if they’d rather this were a temporary sleepover than preparation for combat.
Derki provides some sparsely poetic narration at the opening and closing, tied to his emotions in returning to a Syria he no longer recognizes. They serve to frame “Of Fathers and Sons” with the feeling that you’re seeing a warped dream of family survival, one in which still-noticeable human bonds can’t help but be corroded by isolating hatred and extremist ideology.
‘Of Fathers and Sons’
In Arabic with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 23, Laemmle Music Beverly Hills