Osama, the main subject of the film, with his sons. courtesy Kino Lorber

“Of Fathers and Sons” unusually intimate look at extremism

The Oscar-nominated documentary is thought provoking and deeply unsettling.

I didn’t enjoy watching “Of Fathers and Sons,” but then again, it’s not the kind of film you enjoy. An Oscar-nominated documentary shot over two years, “Of Fathers and Sons” seeks to understand the nature of religious extremism in director Talal Derki’s home country of Syria.

“Of Fathers and Sons” follows the ins and outs of the life of a jihadist’s family. Osama is a proud father who tells his sons that he loves them when he isn’t out training, taking target practice or deactivating mines. Women are never seen. Derki gained the trust of the family by telling them he was a war photographer sympathetic to the cause, thus limiting who he was able to film.

There’s a scene early on where eldest son Osama — named after his father — walks into the room holding a bird. He says he wants “to keep it in a cage” and walks off. A little later, one of the younger boys comes in and announces, “Dad, I slaughtered the bird!” When Osama asks how they did it, Osama Jr. explains, “We put his head down and cut if off, like how you did it, Father, to that man.”

Derki follows the lives not just of Osama’s children but also Osama himself. In one interview, he crouches in a bunker and tells stories of his experiences during war while looking through a rifle scope at the highway. Then he shoots. “He fell off his motorbike!” Osama exclaims as he tries to reload his gun; the cyclist, to Osama’s disappointment, gets away. Derki continues his interview.

Osama and his sons aren’t the only ones who speak in “Of Fathers and Sons” — the camerawork also contributes, and it doesn’t mince words. Though we never see blood, the landscape alone is enough to devastate. Driving in the car, the camera traces out crumbling buildings and explosions in the distance. It’s apocalyptic. At one point, Osama takes his children on a field trip. “I want to show you something,” he says. Derki then cuts to the kids climbing on a tank, playing and laughing.

Perhaps the most alarming depiction in “Of Fathers and Sons” is the way Osama passes his extremism to his sons. The kids throw rocks at girls for being in school; they fill a bottle with citric acid and water and bury it like a mine; they look forward to being able to fight. But at the same time, they’re kids. They climb, they do somersaults and play soccer. Derki is careful to show both sides.

This film speaks for itself, with Derki and his camera crew telling a chilling narrative, one that was a risk to film. “Of Fathers and Sons” is claustrophobic. Just watching the film feels like an act of complicity. The goal, of course, is to present things as they are. It’s a hard truth to see.

“Of Fathers and Sons” was nominated for an Oscar in “Best Documentary,” tickets and showtimes are available at www.circlecinema.com.

Post Author: Emma Palmer