Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Movie Review: Of Fathers and Sons

Of Fathers and Sons **** / *****
Directed by: Talal Derki.
Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki takes many chances in making Of Fathers and Sons – his Oscar nominated documentary about his homeland, that he is now estranged from, living in Berlin. The biggest one was undoubtedly during the filming itself, as he gets close Abu Osama, the central figure in his movie. Derki posed a Jihadi friendly war reporter – although he is anything but – and was welcome into the home of Abu Osama, who will go on about his beliefs – his desire to create a Caliphate for all of the Arab world. These are not just words either – we see him as he goes out and fights – still talking as he hides out as a sniper fighting against government troops. He also works demining his area – a dangerous job, which will – at the halfway point – cost him his left foot. Abu Osama has many sons – and apparently two wives, and some daughters – although they are never seen in the movie, and Abu Osama doesn’t talk about them either (he does get mad at a niece – who is off screen – for not wearing a hijab at one point – one of his friends questioning why he’s made at a two-year old for not wearing one). As the title implies, this is more about Abu Osama and his sons – of which he has many, all of which are being brought up to fight the same fight he is.
So yes, there were risks when making the film. Risks involved in lying to a man who is fighting for Al Nusra, a group related to Al Qaeda – who is shown he is willing to be violent, even with fellow Muslims, if they are not on his side. There were risks associated with simply being in Syria – you see the destruction throughout the movie – and following and filming Abu Osama as he is demining. But Derki takes a risk artistically as well – a risk that is showing Abu Osama as a complete person that he would get criticized for sympathizing with him, or even humanizing him. But it’s that act that makes Of Fathers and Sons as good a documentary as it is – and as heartbreaking as it is. It is because we come to know Abu Osama – and his sons, especially the oldest, Osama, that by the end you are devastated.
Osama is the oldest child of Abu Osama (the name Abu Osama is not his real name, but what everyone refers to him as – it means Father of Osama). At the beginning of the film, he seems like a normal, kid of about 12 – as normal as you can be growing up in a war zone anyway. He is happy, he wrestles and rough houses with his brothers, and his friends. He clearly idolizes his father – and parrots back his talking points, but it is in that way that kids repeat what their parents say, without fully comprehending it. But around the time Abu Osama loses his foot, he sends Osama to a school to study Sharia, and start training as a soldier. What we see of his time at this school isn’t pleasant – a bunch of kids sleeping in a cramped room, being taught to shoot and fight. By the end of the film, that childish innocence is gone – that gleam in the eye that kids get. He’s still a young teenager – but his path is set. And it’s not a good one.
Derki’s camera prefers to simply sit back and observe Abu Osama and his family. Observe what he’s like with them, listen to him speak. Derki doesn’t challenge him on anything – not really. He wants to get a portrait of a man who is willing to do what Abu Osama does – and how he raises his children to do the same. He’s not naïve enough to think he can change his mind, and doesn’t try. He allows Abu Osama to say whatever he wants.
You will walk away the film with a feeling of immense sadness. You may well hate Abu Osama – for what he believes, for what he does, for how he raises his sons, etc. But what Of Fathers and Son does a remarkable job of is showing you precisely what someone like Abu Osama believes – and how they get the next generation to believe it as well. This is a sad and devastating movie – even Derki seems resigned by the end that his country is lost, as he heads back to Germany, walking away from his own country.

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