by Generoso Fierro
For over two years, Damascus-born Syrian documentary filmmaker, Talal Derki (The Return to Homs), posed as a war photographer in order to gain access and live as a guest in the Northern Syrian home of Abu Osama, a Jihadist fighter and co-founder of al-Nusra. During this time period, Derki closely observed Abu’s relationship with his children, focusing primarily on his two eldest sons, Osama and Ayman (aged 13 and 12 respectively in the film) and their paths toward or away from jihadism. During the relatively short running time of the documentary, Derki occasionally widens his focus away from the familial relationships to bring you out with Abu Osama as he goes on jihadist missions, giving you the opportunity to hear directly from Abu himself on his reasoning for waging war during the seemingly never-ending conflict in his and Derki’s homeland.
With Of Fathers and Sons, which is a nominee for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature this year, Derki gives the audience a rare unfiltered glimpse into the turbulent homelife and motivations of a jihadist as he prepares his son to become a fighter for an Islamist caliphate, and in doing so, he also creates a document that examines the fragile link between a parent and child during conflict. I had prepared questions specifically about the editing decisions that went into Of Fathers and Sons, but before my conversation with Derki at AFI Fest 2018 (where the film was screening last November), I was informed that Abu Osama had been killed not too long before the interview took place, which led the conversation into a different direction than originally intended. I hope that you find will this dialog an interesting companion piece after watching the film.
Q: Before I ask you any questions, Talal, I just wanted to express my sympathies, as I read that Abu Osama had been killed in October while diffusing a car bomb. I am very sorry, as I know that you spent years with him and saw him in a way that very few did.
A: Thank you, but you must understand that this was his choice. This is what I wanted to show in my film—that these suicide bombers, or even these fighters who work with explosives, make a conscious decision to martyr themselves for their ideology. This mentality is a very complicated thing to express. For example, when Abu Osama lost his foot to the mine while trying to instruct others on how to locate these explosives, the moment that he was able enough to work, he went right back to it. What eventually happened to him was that he was trying to dismantle a car bomb, and something went wrong, and he was killed. I had not been in contact with Abu for over a year and a half, mostly because my life is in jeopardy now because I had to lie to them about my background in order to gain access into their lives. So, at the end of the day, I am indeed quite sad that Abu was killed, and I so wish that this was not the case and that circumstances were different and that he just could have had a normal life. I also wish that his death would have a purpose, in particular, to encourage children to not be jihadists. Please remember that I was only there as a witness, and there was nothing that I could’ve done to change the path of his life or the lives of any of the other people around me. That was never my mission, nor was it my mission to criticize these people with my film. I wanted to let the audience decide as to how they felt about the actions of these people.
Q: I appreciate that you left these judgements to the audience. Given that you lived with Abu Osama’s family for so long and must have had an enormous amount of footage, I am curious about the decisions that you made as a filmmaker as far what you finally chose to show in the final cut of your film. For example, in your film we see that Abu Osama is a leader and is indeed respected and even feared by people in the village, but I only found out after the film that Abu was actually one of the co-founders of al-Nusra.
A: Yes, theoretically he was, but shortly after the founding of the organization, Abu left al-Nusra to follow a group that was even more radical than al-Nusra called The Guardian of Religion, who are directly connected to al-Qaeda, and they also even have people from ISIS who are with them as well, so really he became even more radical than al-Nusra. In terms of this film, what his affiliation was with a certain group isn’t as important because I wanted the focus to be on the uprising of the radicalism movement and Jihadism, and whether you are under the umbrella or not under the umbrella of a group, it is about the power of being part of that movement. So, there are a lot of people who believe in jihad, and who want to participate in jihad even if they live in different countries like America where there are no groups per se, but they are ready to inflict violence in the same way.
Q: In that way, I feel that your film helps people who have not personally been exposed to the conflict in Syria understand how someone (in this case, Abu’s son, Osama) would want to ever become a jihadist, because most of us who have not had the kind of experience you’ve had would rarely be able to comprehend the reasoning behind why someone would want to take up that ideology.
A: The situation in Syria has been a nightmare for a long time, and it effects the psychology of the people who have had to live through it, and because of that, you are seeing this sharp rise in jihadism. In my film, you see how jihadism effects the family directly, which is a way, I think, that most people can understand the situation more than an explanation of the conflict as a whole.
Q: In terms of Abu’s sons, Osama and Ayman, who are only a year apart in age, why do you feel that Osama became the one selected for jihadism, and Ayman the one allowed to pursue further education in school? Do you feel that decision was, in a way, Abu’s belief that there is a non-combative future possible in Syria, or did he simply feel that Ayman was too young or not aggressive enough for combat?
A: Ayman, in my opinion, was more psychologically connected to his mother. When I was with Abu, Ayman spent most of the time in the kitchen with his mother, but you never see Ayman’s interactions with his mother because he was usually where we were not allowed, since we were forbidden to film a woman in the home. You also don’t see Ayman in military camp because, when he had gone there, he did not do well—he was very slow. At the same time, I believe that after Abu lost his foot and life became difficult to manage on his own, he wanted Ayman there in the home to take care of his mother, brothers, and sisters. Lastly, Ayman at first had to go to the school to learn the basic things needed to live, but when he got an education, it turned out that Ayman was the best student in the class. I feel that it was important to show that even in the caliphate there is a school that teaches about love, a place where there are discussions about issues other than jihadism, so there is indeed some hope for the future
Q: I was glad to see those scenes in the classroom, as not only do you see Ayman excelling in his schoolwork, but also you see young women, who are not only allowed to be filmed, but also who are in class, sitting with boys and not wearing hijabs. Was this school in Damascus?
A: Yes, this is the same school that has existed from before the war in Damascus. It is a state-run school, and the teachers are paid by the government.
Q: Have you been able to keep in touch with Osama and Ayman since filming has been completed? I do understand that in the case of Osama, because he has become a jihadist, that communication with him might difficult or even forbidden?
A: This area is like a black hole because all of the people who had access to this village are now gone, and also I don’t want to put them in danger in any way. I also want it to be understood that I take full responsibility for this film and that these people were totally unaware of the film and how it was going to be put together, so they are not culpable in any way. I really wish that I could speak with them, but before I blocked social networking between myself and Ayman, I asked him about Osama, but there was nothing that he could really tell me about him. Much of this makes me very sad, and I so wish that all of Islam could someday soon be more about peace. This God that we believe in should inspire peace and an understanding that we are all one human race. It is a miracle that we are all together and can appreciate the advancements of this civilization and how technology has improved our time here. All of this world is just too great to be constantly fighting with one another.
Q: That is the remarkable aspect of what your film shows—that Abu Osama, when he is with his sons, can be a very loving man, but he has also seen his country destroyed by civil war, and consequently, he needs to be combative in the world around him.
A: Abu Osama is just reacting to the actions and the reactions of what going on around him. Given what has occurred, it should not be a surprise that someone like Abu Osama would appear.
Q: Thank you so much for your time today Talal, and for your courage in making this documentary.
A: Thank you very much.
Of Fathers and Sons is currently available for viewing on Kanopy.