Posing as an extremist, Syrian-born filmmaker Talal Derki spent more than two years, on-and-off, living with a Jihadi family for his Sundance-winning documentary Of Fathers And Sons. The end result is a thoughtful, nuanced and profoundly shocking portrait of what life is like for those living in an Islamic caliphate. It’s a world so rarely seen – except through political dog-whistles and sensational headlines – and Derki pulls back the curtain with unflinching honesty.
At its core, Of Fathers And Sons follows a group of young boys on the path to radicalisation, lead by their father, an explosives expert fighting for the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s overshadowed by radical ideology and Islamist fervour. Framing domestic intimacy – there are quarrels, games and moments of paternal tenderness – side-by-side with scenes in which mines are disarmed, beheadings are discussed and children no older than 9 or 10 are taught to fire assault weapons, the end result is a film that is both eye-opening and deeply human. To mark the film’s release, we sat down with Derki to find out more about how he embedded with Al-Nusra, what he feels some journalists get wrong when reporting on Islamic extremism and how he thinks we might break the cycle of extremism.
Why did you decide to make this documentary?
We struggle to build democracy, and the revolution sours and becomes a dictatorship, and that’s when Jihadi influences begin to grow and reshape how people understand religion. It was a desire to answer the question of how can this happen, what is the motivation, how do people manage to brainwash society, how does a dream become a nightmare? There are a lot of things personally which connected me to the situation, which drove me to seek a deeper understanding. This challenge, to make a film from inside the society, to follow one family - a father, a radical - as he prepares his kids for the upcoming caliphate. It’s about the new generation of Syria, about the future. I wanted to understand who are those people, what happens behind closed doors. I have access in this area, so I thought I should do it, if I don’t do it, no one else will.
How did you get that level of access?
It happened through the connections I made on previous film Homs. I got a lot of skills about how to film on the front line. Slowly I started to meet people, I started pretending that I was also sympathising with them and their ideology.
Nervous? Disarming bombs maybe a foot away from you...
To capture what he was doing, when he was disarming mines - that was his specialism, dismantling car bombs, mines etc - you have to be with the character. You have to bring this stressful moment to the audience so they can know what’s happening. The people I filmed, they worship death, they want to get killed, they want to be martyred. They don’t care so much about life. Think how it moves from generation to generation too. The children also use the bomb as a toy, as a game. They learnt from their father and they do it now as a game, they take guns for fun. The game then slowly becomes a reality. It’s part of the life of the main character and you have to show that honestly. It’s very risky, and you realise that, especially after he lost his feet, I realise I survived by luck. Now the father has been killed in battle, on the 17th October this year - just three weeks ago whilst he was dismantling a car bomb. There is a video online of the moment it happens.
Are you still in touch with the family?
No, no, not for a long time. They look at me as a traitor. I was there posing as a sympathiser, they didn’t know who I was. Some of them have threatened me, even though some of them haven’t seen the film, they think of me as an enemy of the nation.
Did you have any worries that you’d be discovered whilst you were filming?
It was like an acrobat, I had to balance all the time. I was acting and directing at the same time, even if I didn’t appear as an actor in the film. I had to keep this game going, I had to do what they do, agree with what they agree with. I was dealing with this for the whole period of filming, both in Syria and outside of Syria. We were there on-and-off for about two years. I was always taking care not to say or do anything against their ideology, no photos of me out with the girls, or with a drink or whatever. Nothing on social media could show a different side to me than the one I presented to them. I was working hard on that balance, now, after the shooting is finished, things are more easy. I can get back to being me, get back to my life.
Do you think there are things journalists get wrong when they report on this type of extremism?
In a lot of media, you don’t have enough to look closely, to take your breath, to be patient and understand how it’s working from the inside. What are their motivations? What are their feelings? It’s important in the film to know that he’s a lovely father, I want viewers to be involved in this story, it shouldn’t just be “oh, they’re bad people.” I want you to recognise that they do something bad, but also have a sympathetic side. That’s the power of film, you can see more. I chose a guy with a sweet smile and lovely kids, because I need you to love them at the same time that you recognise they’re doing terrible things. You can only understand that balance in cinema.
Do you think the two sons offer two alternative paths? One joins a military camp, the other seems to pursue a more academic life?
This absolutely shows that there’s still hope. The society has schools, at the same time that they have Jihadi camps. One son, even if he’s not released from the ideology, is more free of the violence. I hope that his children will have a better life, that they have the freedom to choose a life other than one of Jihad.
It might seem like an ignorant question, but there are no women in this film, were you not allowed to film them for religious reasons?
Exactly, this is one of the tragedies of the society - they take all the rights of women away. Women aren’t allowed to speak to strangers, they have to stay at home and accept that their husbands can marry other women. It’s one of the biggest tragedies, not only what happens to the children, and what happens to the society writ-large, but what happens to the women.
Once you’ve finished working on a documentary like this, do you ever need time to decompress?
I usually when I finish editing, I start straight away on a new film. But after this, I haven’t yet. I’m still recovering, thinking about what kind of documentary I could do next. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed in war films, or films to do with Syria. I’m working on a fictional film now, it’s not connected to Syria or the war. I’m trying to be more free. I am producing a documentary film about the after-war, about Isis and the city of Raqqa, it’s a personal story.
When you talk about focusing on fiction, is that something you’re pursuing for a creative change? Or do you need a break from that material mentally? Emotionally?
I need a break. This is the second film I’ve made about Syria and these people and the ISIS mentality. I need to do something outside of this terrible moment.
What people do you want to take away from this film?
There are a lot of things you can take away, I want people to think about the children who grow up in this society, how they’re trained, what the legacy of violence is. How can we avoid children from reckoning with that legacy. If we manage to do that, we will be able to protect the next generation from being stolen by any Jihadist or chaos.