Why the Syrian filmmaker risked his life for his Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Of Fathers and Sons’

Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki. (Supplied)
Updated 26 February 2019
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Why the Syrian filmmaker risked his life for his Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Of Fathers and Sons’

  • 'Of Fathers and Sons' is the only non-American film that was nominated for Best Documentary at the 91st Academy Awards
  • Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” is stunning

DUBAI: Of all the achievements of Arab filmmakers in recent times, Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” may be the most stunning. The only non-American film nominated for Best Documentary at the 91st Academy Awards, which take place this Sunday, “Of Fathers and Sons” is the kind of film one might imagine making, but never believe could actually be made. It’s a story that Derki risked his life to tell.

For two and a half years, the Syrian filmmaker lived in northern Syria with Abu Osama, a member of the Al-Nusra Front (also known as Al-Qaeda in the Levant), and his family. There, he pretended to be sympathetic to their cause so that he could film them in an attempt to learn, first-hand, how young men become radicalized. Focusing on a father and his sons, the film lays bare in terrifying detail how young boys with kindness in their hearts find themselves in an Al-Qaeda training camp at a tender young age, all to gain the approval of their beloved patriarch.

“The idea started with my previous film,” Derki tells Arab News. “After the siege of Homs in my last film, ‘Return to Homs,’ after all the massacres, a lot of people on the ground moved to be more radical. It’s a war, but I started wondering how this movement managed to brainwash and bring all these people (over) to their side, and how they gained their trust. I saw a lot of kids with their fathers involved in fights. All these things put questions in my mind. I’m not a part of this, but I also have to understand.”

Derki didn’t want to make a film about the Syrian war or about violence. He wanted to examine life behind closed doors, focusing on the generation of young Syrian men raised in wartime. To do so, he had to go deep undercover.

After starting research for the film at the end of 2013, Derki used many ‘fixers’ to help him work his way into this close-knit community, gain people’s trust, and identify his subjects. He settled on Abu Osama and his sons. He convinced them that he was on their side, and was given intimate access to their lives in return — all the time aware that he could not let them know what kind of film he was actually making.

“Abu Osama wasn’t well known. He’s not the leader. What attracted me to him is how strongly he believed in what he was doing, in the ideology. When you look at him, he looks like a normal father, a lovely father,” says Derki. “This paradox between these two faces — between a lovely father and the father who is ready to sacrifice his kids in order to (realize) his ideology — this is part of my cinematic vision. If I went to a regular cliché jihadist, people would not watch the film. People would leave the cinema after five minutes, believe me.”

Though Derki managed to gain the trust of the family and the Al-Nusra Front, he was always conscious that no matter how friendly they were with him, he was never really creating a true connection with anyone he was filming. And he was powerless to create positive change while he was there.

“I was undercover as a sympathizer,” he says. “This is how they know me. I couldn’t be more than an observer. Sometimes, if I could, I would act as a merciful guy with the kids so they would not get punishment. I played that role. But in a big-topic issue, you couldn’t do anything but make your own film out of this chaos.

“I was connected to them only as a filmmaker, because, at the end of the day, if they knew I had a different purpose than what they thought, I would lose my life,” he continues. “When I had a good moment to film, I was satisfied and happy. As time passed, I had to accept all these things — all these ideas, all this behavior — without any (question). My mission there was to make a film.”

“Of Fathers and Sons” is purely observational. Derki keeps himself out of the story as much as possible, zooming in on a father and his son in everyday moments, in order to see how they interact, the love and trust they build, and the ways that a son’s dedication to his father is twisted to dark ends.

“The knowledge I got from this experience is about the roots of violence — the circle of violence — and the eternal relationship between the dictatorial father and his son; the masculine power that destroys our society,” Derki explains. “All of these things gave me more understanding that it all starts from childhood. Why does someone like me decide not to carry a weapon? If you grow up in a society in which your father, your teacher, are harming you, and punishing you by hitting you, and you’re used to receiving violence, then when you grow up you are very capable of carrying weapons and killing someone for any idea you start to believe in.”

By the second half of the film, the eldest son of Abu Osama is participating in an Al-Qaeda training camp. In one harrowing scene, the young boys are told to lie still on the ground while bullets are shot next to their heads and feet in order to teach them to lose their fear. Even now, years on from filming, Derki thinks about Abu Osama’s young children, hoping they can escape from the fate that already killed their father, who Derki says died at the end of 2018.

“Emotionally, I feel sad for the kids. They are still around 12 years old, it’s still possible to take them out of this and start a new life. Even in the moment when I was there, it was still possible,” he says. “They appreciate life. (But) in this ideology, they appreciate death. Death is their request — not life. Not humanity.”

Derki is speaking to Arab News from Los Angeles, ahead of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony. While there, Derki has had the chance to celebrate with the other Arab nominees, Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek and Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki.

“It was great to meet them and to have some conversation — to be three nominees from the Arab world at the biggest global celebration. It’s very intense,” he says. “I hope that, in the upcoming year, this will bring more success for Arab filmmakers.

“Nadine said she liked it so much. And I liked her film,” Derki continues. “I really want to work with Rami in the future, he’s a very talented actor.”

Whatever happens at the Oscars, Derki hopes the attention his film has received will ultimately be a force for good in the Arab world.

“It’s about how we can protect the new generation in the other Muslim countries,” he explains. “What can we do to build a generation without violence, to focus more on life, love, and communicating with other cultures, instead of building walls around us?”


Joss Stones says Saudi women are ‘strong’ after performing in the country

Updated 27 June 2019
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Joss Stones says Saudi women are ‘strong’ after performing in the country

  • The singer performed on June 23
  • She said Saudi men are helping the women with the change in the country

DUBAI: English singer and songwriter Joss Stone said she loved Saudi Arabia and that she hopes to visit again, through her personal social media accounts.

According to her Twitter account, the singer performed on June 23 with the help of a Saudi-based travel and event company.

Stone said she had the “sweetest gig” in Saudi Arabia.

The songwriter posted an image of herself wearing a pink niqab on her Instagram account, recounting her experience of the country in detail.

She decided to keep the headcover on even though she didn’t have to because she fell in love with it, Stone said.

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Oh #saudiarabia how we love you so ! I cannot wait to tell everyone I meet to go visit this beautiful place filled with beautiful people yet again, pleasantly surprised. Took me a while to figure out how to keep this wrap from falling off and then when I finally got it I realised that I didn’t even have to wear it. What a shame ! So I wore it anyway because I love it. I love the different cultures we get a chance to come across and become part of, even if it’s for just one small tiny moment. It means so much. The women here are strong and exercising their choice to be free, wear what they want and do what they want, their want may be different to what we experience at home but there ain’t nothing wrong in that. To each her own. I spoke to female doctors , managers, directors, vocal specialists, hearing specialists, carers, a singer/performer/artist and they all tell the same tale. The horses mouth has spoken. Yes there are horrible things going on all over the world in many different corners and crevasses but these women individually felt they were not oppressed , they were highly educated and free to choose how they lived their lives. I can only ever speak of those that I have met, I will not comment on what I have not seen with my own eyes because I have no right to. Assumption really is not something I wish to entertain. if you don't know , go have a look for yourself have a look for your self. I have come away from this inspired. Not just by the women but the men too, with how they are celebrating the changes that are happening in Saudi Arabia they are not fighting against it as so many might assume . It seems to me that they are all walking forward together trying to make there world a better place. This is the feeling I got from my personal experience. I would really like to go back one day and explore this place further . Thanks for having me #saudiarabia

A post shared by Joss Stone (@jossstone) on

She praised Saudi women, saying they are strong and exercise their own will. She spoke to a number of women from different professions in Saudi Arabia before coming to that conclusion.

“The women here are strong and exercising their choice to be free, wear what they want and do what they want, their want may be different to what we experience at home but there ain’t nothing wrong in that,” the singer said.

Stone also praised Saudi men for not fighting against the changes in the country, and said “it seems to me that they are all walking forward together trying to make [their] world a better place.”

The concert was part of the singer’s ‘Total World Tour,’ where she tries to perform in every country.

She has already visited Jordan, Oman, Syria and North Korea, among numerous other destinations.