Syrian documentarian Talal Derki has gained the trust of one Jihadist family and is allowed to document their life for two years. In those two years, Osama (13) and Ayman (12) will go from everyday children playing games of soccer and jacks to the next slate of Jihadist soldiers, whether they want to or not.
Not that Osama or Ayman voice any interest in life outside Jihad. Maybe they don’t have one — though we do learn in a late voiceover that Ayman is pursuing education instead of soldiering — or maybe Derki never asked. His main subject, Osama and Ayman’s father, seems capable of producing vast amounts of thoughts and feelings without being prodded. He is exactly who you might expect him to be: proud of the 9/11 attacks, devoted beyond words to the Caliphate, and existing within a world centered solely around him. Not one woman is seen on camera, and even discussions about them — a two-year-old who refuses to wear the hijab — take an air of oppression.
While this family does make for a fascinating subject, Of Fathers and Sons lacks balance or a sense of commentary that could elevate it from mere curiosity. Not that Derki need spell everything out, but as his camera watches these young boys, future terrorist all if their fathers have anything to say about it, it seems to watch them without any sense of loss — be it innocence or life — or any sense of admiration. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.
Of Fathers and Sons does provide a perspective into daily Jihadist life, a peek not easily obtained or easily forgotten. As Derki leaves this village to return to his family in Berlin, a pall comes over his voice. He’s lucky to be alive, but he’s sad others he’s come across are not. But he might be sadder still that a cycle of violence and terror are still firmly in place.