Of Fathers And Sons

We live in an unfortunate historical moment when inflammatory anti-Muslim cellphone videos define – to some people – an entire faith. Meanwhile, an all-access feature-length documentary from inside the home of a purported terrorist will be seen by almost nobody. Talal Derki’s Of Fathers And Sons is a mind-blowing look into the reality of an Al-Qaida-associated Jihadist family, and yet the film will be lucky to get distribution of any kind. Is nobody else curious? Does anybody recognize the humanitarian impact that this kind of film could deliver?

While I’m sure that Paddington is a fine young bear, and certainly a more pleasant family experience, it puzzles me that American society overwhelmingly values the story of a stuffed animal over an honest glimpse into what many consider to be Enemy #1. Even the US military would likely benefit from the human-level intel disclosed in this film – I cannot imagine an American has ever accessed such long-term proximity to Al-Qaida, much less while documenting it. On the other hand, the military is surely not interested in humanizing the opposition.

“…bullets don’t scare them anymore but even the sound of a fart frightens us…

Many scenes do substantiate the Western image of Jihadist as psychotic extremists: shooting guns within inches of children to numb their fear of death, marching them through the streets wearing ski masks, some horrendous misogyny. Although a few men joke about their various wives, not a single woman appears in the film, hence the title Of Fathers And Sons.

But our similarities are even more compelling. Young children discuss theoretical math (“what N times N?”, “X”, “No, it’s actually B”). The father, Abu Osama, cares for his son with an affectionate love far beyond what a typical American father would show. Even a scene of children constructing and frolicking around with a homemade pressure bomb becomes relatable when you realize that American children do the same (I know someone that detonated a similar 2-liter pressure bomb in my high school’s parking lot – and was not castigated). The children recognize their elders’ psychosis and plot to run away: “bullets don’t scare them anymore but even the sound of a fart frightens us.”

Perhaps I’m prematurely cynical about the prospects of distribution for this film–it could, and should, circulate – at least on a streaming platform – but I’ve seen this happen before. At Sundance 2016, there was a similar film called The Land Of The Enlightened that showed young Afghan children digging up and bartering Soviet mines. The unfathomable access to Afghan children and American soldiers over five years of shooting, along with magnificent celluloid cinematography, made it comfortably one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen. And that film also received absolutely zero “festival buzz” and is still not available to view on any platform–a masterpiece lost to oblivion.

“…open your eyes to the humanity of those we’ve made into enemies…”

While Of Fathers And Sons is not crafted nearly as well as The Land Of The Enlightened, it’s more shocking and urgent. An earnest dystopian exchange early in the film sounds distinctly satirically: “did you hear the bomb?” “whatever”. Later on, Abu opines that “what’s happening now is the precursor to WWIII, it’s 100% clear.” He spends his time disarming mines with a metal detector until inevitably his leg is blown off. Without the historical context that only Adam Curtis could condense into a single film, it’s often hard to understand the rationale behind Abu’s actions. But there are allusions to his generations-old motivation: “how does a man feel to see his country destroyed before his eyes?”

This is a film defined by contradictions. We see the elders capture (and possibly execute) enemy soldiers while the children enact “operation swimming pool liberation.” We see children elegantly jumping through burning hoops like Cirque du Soleil amidst terrifying training programs. But the most chilling contradiction is a long static shot of Abu wistfully expressing his love for his missing son while sniping a motorcyclist far away. America – you can watch the stuffed bear movie too, but please open your eyes to the humanity of those we’ve made into enemies before his WWIII prophecy turns true.

Of Fathers And Sons (2017) Directed by Talal Derki; Edited Anne Fabini; Shot by Kahtan Hasson; Produced by Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias N. Siebert and Hans Robert Eisenhauer; Executive Produced by Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, and Geralyn White Dreyfous. Of Fathers And Sons played in the World Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance film festival.

9 out of 10 Oscars

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