Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 June 2019

'Of Fathers and Sons' filmmaker snuck into an Al Qaeda enclave to document children at war

Talal Derki presented himself as a war photographer to the leadership of Al Qaeda group Al Nusra to make his Oscar-nominated documentary

‘Of Fathers and Sons’ is the second film in the Syria at War trilogy by director Talal Derki. Courtesy Filmproduk
‘Of Fathers and Sons’ is the second film in the Syria at War trilogy by director Talal Derki. Courtesy Filmproduk

Talal Derki is either an ­extremely brave filmmaker or completely foolhardy. His movie Of Fathers and Sons was nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar – which is due to be announced this morning – and involved him sneaking behind enemy lines in the name of his art.

A Syrian who graduated from film school in Athens in 2003, he had been making short films and documentaries in his homeland before being forced to flee the country after the start of the civil war in 2012.

He risked his life to make two acclaimed films about how his country and the lives of its citzens have been ravaged by the battles, and the rise of ­Salafi Jihadism has looked to build a “caliphate” out of the ruins.

Continuing the story

Derki’s Return to Homs won the World Cinema Best Documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014.

It told the story of how the lives of 19-year-old national football team goalkeeper Abdul Baset Al Sarout and 24-year-old journalist Ossama were thrown into turmoil when Homs was turned into a ghost town by the Syrian army, under the orders of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

The friends see the only response as joining the rebel forces, and ultimately ­martyrdom. “Of Fathers and Sons is the second part of my Syria at War trilogy,” Derki tells The National.

“After starting with Return to Homs, which explained how this revolution turned into an armed uprising, from peaceful demonstrations to a place where everyone was carrying weapons, I wanted to go more deeply into a film about the role of the Jihadist Salafi movement and religion.”

He also wanted to make a documentary about how young children are being persuaded to join the fundamentalists in their armed crusade. “My idea was to go, in a human way, to capture the contrast between childhood; to capture the real face of these kids and the propaganda and the brainwashing, to show how we lose these innocent kids to the brainwashing.”

The idea for Of Fathers and Sons came to Derki while he was shooting Return to Homs. “I saw a father teaching his little kids about how they should carry weapons; the whole conversation was about weapons and the type of weapons that you need to kill soldiers.” Having escaped Syria, Derki also saw how the world was quick to judge the children of ISIS.

And while he understands it is easy to condemn images of young kids killing their prisoners, he also believes people should consider it as a more complex situation; a systematic attempt to turn children into soldiers and believe in a fundamentalist cause. He wanted to capture all this on screen.

Bravery or foolishness?

This is the point at which Derki could either be seen as brave or foolhardy. Because it was then he decided to return to Syria,where he presented himself as a war photographer to the leadership of the Al Qaeda group Al Nusra in Northern Syria, claiming he was sympathetic to their cause in order to gain access. “I lied to him at this point, so that he could feel more secure,” admits Derki. “At the same time, it meant that no one would kidnap me, as they would not be worried about me, [and the fact] that I had a camera on me.”

Director Talal Derki. Courtesy Florian Reimann
Director Talal Derki. Courtesy Florian Reimann

He even used his own lack of knowledge to his advantage to be able to film. “I went to them and said, I don’t know much about the issues, I want to learn from you and this is why I want to make the film.”

He likens the situation to being “like a Muslim child who lies to their parents about being religious so that they don’t offend their parents by saying we don’t believe in God”. He adds: “In our society, it’s normal. We are used to doing that because we know it’s a sensitive issue and if you told the truth to someone, like your mum, she would be worried about you going to hell.”

It’s an interesting insight into the way Derki thinks. It’s clear in what he shoots, that he believes society and societal pressures are the primary factors driving these kids into war. “I knew exactly what I wanted,” he says. “I wanted to capture from deep inside, from their point of view; how life looks for a kid who does not have any background except war. This generation, after seven years of fighting, they don’t know what life looks like without war.”

I wanted to capture from deep inside, from their point of view; how life looks for a kid who does not have any background except war.

Talal Derki, director

The film starts with a link to Return to Homs as we see the children playing a game of football. “I said to the editor, it’s good to start with football, as it can be a legacy from film to film, transferring from one part to another.”

Derki then shows exactly how Nusra member Abu Osama grooms his eight sons into ­becoming fighters, concentrating the story on 13-year-old Osama and 12-year-old Ayman who are about to enlist in military camp.

“I start with them as innocent kids, or kids in violent circumstances,” he explains. “And the violence comes from the education, through every detail, and it’s devolved into the training which is more professional and in the hands of the terrorists. These kids are very young and small and you cannot imagine that so quickly they are going to be jihadists.”

'The Syria we know doesn’t exist any more'

Derki argues that the film points to a bigger issue across parts of the Middle East and the Arab world; one that is beyond the wars, and seeps into everyday society.

“It’s a culture of violence in the Middle East, we need to change our behaviour and education inside the family with kids.” The film has not come without criticism. Ben Kenigsberg, in his review in The New York Times, questioned the position of Derki watching the events unfolding, by stating: “What Derki was able to film beggars belief, and there are moments when even his presence as a bystander seems questionable.”

Derki’s aim was to make a documentary about the children of ISIS, and the systematic attempt to turn them into soldiers. Courtesy Basis Berlin Filmproduk
Derki’s aim was to make a documentary about the children of ISIS, and the systematic attempt to turn them into soldiers. Courtesy Basis Berlin Filmproduk

In rebuttal, the director argues that he is “only a witness”. He wants the audience to make the judgement from what his camera has picked up, not himself.

He also says he didn’t fear for his own life because: “I believe in my karma and I’m sure that I will become an old person. I’m sure about this truth. Maybe it’s just a feeling, but at the moments that I was close to death, I could only trust that I would live.”

He is not sure when the third part of the trilogy will come out. And it’s possible he will shoot another film in between. He has set up a film production company in Berlin and now considers Germany home. “If I would miss something, I would miss my life in Berlin now, because the Syria we know doesn’t exist any more.”

It’s odd to think his decision to journey back into Syria ends at Sunday night’s ­Academy Awards ceremony, but as Of Fathers and Sons is at pains to make clear, no one really knows what the future holds.

Updated: February 24, 2019 07:25 PM

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