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

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

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

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?”


New exhibition explores nature through British-Arab eyes

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
Updated 39 min 14 sec ago

New exhibition explores nature through British-Arab eyes

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
  • Manchester-based installation highlights stories of migration, diaspora
  • Lead artist: ‘After the year we’ve just had, this project and exhibition is the lightness we all need’

LONDON: A new mixed-media exhibition exploring the history, achievements and experiences of Arabs in Britain through the lens of people’s relationship with nature and green space has launched in the north of England.

Free to visitors and run by the Arab British Centre, the Manchester-based installation highlights stories of migration, diaspora, and the intricacies of the Arab-British experience in all its intersections and diversity. 

Themed around the idea of nature and named “Jarda” — “garden” in Moroccan Arabic — artists will give audiences a chance to “walk in nature through Arab eyes.”

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown and when parks, fields and forests became people’s only outing.

The women-led exhibition encourages visitors to appreciate the green spaces available to them, while also exposing audiences to the Arab experience in modern Britain.

“Working with this group of amazing women has made me appreciate Manchester, myself and my femininity in a whole new way. After the year we’ve just had, this project and exhibition is the lightness we all need,” El-Mal said.

Amani Hassan, program director at the Arab British Centre, said: “Since it was first launched in 2019, our Arab Britain theme has set out to explore the history, achievements and experiences of Arabs in Britain.”

The program aims to overturn preconceptions, challenge prejudices, retrace the ways the Arab world has influenced and shaped British culture and society, and celebrate the contributions of Arabs in the country, past and present. 

“Jarda highlights the universal comfort and connection we can all find in nature through intimate and personal reflections on home, belonging and the power of community,” Hassan said.

“We hope that visitors to the museum enjoy their walk in nature through Arab British eyes and are encouraged to reflect on their own connections to it.”

The physical exhibition will be accompanied by a digital offering that will give people free access to a host of creative activities that aim to encourage people to reflect on their own connections with green spaces.

“Jarda” is open now, and will run until Oct. 10 in Manchester’s People’s History Museum.


Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city
The text-based installation “Beirut Narratives” is currently in display in Lebanon. Supplied
Updated 23 July 2021

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city
  • Text-based installation offered residents ‘a silent, anonymous way of protesting’ after the devastating port explosion

DUBAI: “I burst into tears.” “I was shaking.” “My chair flew me right above ground.” “No right to dream.” “Bitter feelings.” “Apocalypse.” 

These are some of the brief-but-harrowing testimonials from survivors of the catastrophic Beirut Port explosion of August 4, 2020, which are now being publicly displayed on the streets of the Lebanese capital as part of the text-based installation “Beirut Narratives.” The installation was conceived by Lebanese sisters, architects and co-founders of Architecture et Mécanismes, Celine and Tatiana Stephan. 

From the banking crisis to price inflation and fuel shortage, it has been a surreal year of lows for most Lebanese civilians. On the day we had arranged to discuss the sisters’ latest project, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri resigned after failing to form a new government. 

The text-based installation was conceived by Lebanese sisters, architects and co-founders of Architecture et Mécanismes, Celine and Tatiana Stephan. Supplied

“Each one of us is thinking: ‘How can people still be so adapted to such a situation, in terms of the economic crisis and the socio-political situation?’ Everything is happening all at the same time,” Celine told Arab News. “People are, I believe, tired and frustrated. What we’re trying to do, as architects, with this urban installation is to rethink the city.”

Unlike many young professionals who are hoping to migrate or have already left the country for better opportunities abroad, Celine and Tatiana have decided to stay for now, for better or for worse, in their home country. “Beirut is like a parent to us,” said Tatiana. “When your parents are getting old, you just don’t leave them behind and go. You help them, support them and push them to be better.” 

Continuing the theme of family, Celine added: “I have two daughters. I would like them to live in Lebanon and see change happening and be part of that change. Despite its misery, chaos, and lack of infrastructure, it’s a city that inspires us at all levels.”

The Stephan sisters gathered testimonials from a diverse group of people, including friends and family, firefighters and healthcare workers. Supplied

In recent months, the pair turned their attention towards buildings and spaces in the neighborhoods of Gemmayze, Karantina and Mar Mikhael, which have been damaged and stand empty in the aftermath of the blast. In a commemorative manner, these silent and neglected buildings are given their own voice. 

“We wanted to make those buildings talk, because it’s somehow like a new way of manifestation,” explained Celine. “It’s a silent, anonymous way of protesting,” added Tatiana. 

The Stephan sisters gathered testimonials from a diverse group of people, including friends and family, firefighters and healthcare workers, all of whom were releasing pent-up anger and sadness and were willing to share their experiences of that horrific day. Children also contributed drawings to the project. 

Children also contributed drawings to the project. Supplied

For the Stephans, it was all an emotional and healing experience. “We sat with those people, we talked to them, we cried, we heard every single story. I still have goosebumps now,” said Celine. 

Divided into three categories — descriptions, emotions, and reflections — the testimonials were written out with red, black and white spray paint onto pieces of brown jute, later transformed by stitching into bold tapestries or “fragments.” According to the Stephans, who did the spraying and stitching, the use of jute was intentional, as it is accessible and serves as a reminder of the durable material used to transfer wheat into the silos at the Port of Beirut. 

The sisters and their collaborator, the Lebanese-Danish creative consultant Mira Hawa, went to different sites, personally hanging the fragments, which is in itself a risky task. “We had to go to the edge of a high building, on the 11th floor, and the wind was extremely strong. We had to improvise, we didn’t know how to install it because it was huge and there was a lot of wind,” Tatiana said of one of their challenging experiences near the port. 

The testimonials were written out with red, black and white spray paint onto pieces of brown jute, later transformed by stitching into bold tapestries. Supplied

Seeing the women lead the installation process on site was surprising for some. “Men were coming out in their sleeveless vests, with their big muscles, hanging over their balconies to see who these three girls were,” said Hawa. “One of the first comments we got was: ‘Who’s going to help you? Where are the guys?’” 

Despite encountering difficulties in accessing some buildings, they persisted and installed the work on 13 buildings. For some, the fragments proved to be too intense — akin to rubbing salt into a wound. 

“Some people were very disturbed when they saw the piece,” said Celine. “I remember one time we were not even installing; we were trying to talk to an NGO to discuss the possibility of installing. The owner of a building was there and he was really destabilized and he started crying. We felt really bad and asked ourselves so many questions: Are we making the right choice?” 

The project also tackles the notion of speaking up in an environment that often suppresses inner thoughts and feelings related to trauma. Supplied

Tatiana echoed Celine’s sentiments, highlighting how sensitive this whole project has been. “I felt that for some who were engaged in the piece, you feel in their eyes as if you put a knife into a wound,” she said. But overall, the project was positively viewed and embraced by locals. It brought out a sense of community, with many assisting the women during the arduous installation process. 

“We were touched by everyone who wanted to help, who offered us coffee, or water. They barely have anything to eat and drink,” remarked Celine. 

“Beirut Narratives” ticks a number of boxes, acting as a form of cultural activism, supporting the Lebanese people and offering them a sense of justice. The Stephans and Hawa hope that one day these fragments can also travel abroad, igniting empathy with the Lebanese diaspora. The project also tackles the notion of speaking up in an environment that often suppresses inner thoughts and feelings related to trauma. 

“We have a very painful habit in the Middle East, that every time something (bad) happens we just get on with it. I think it’s about time we stopped and made some noise,” said Hawa. “When you see the pieces on the street, it’s very bold, it’s very raw and prominent. You cannot ignore it.”


Pop-culture highlights from across the region

Pop-culture highlights from across the region
Photographed by Kishore Das. Supplied
Updated 23 July 2021

Pop-culture highlights from across the region

Pop-culture highlights from across the region

DUBAI: From indie electronica to live performances, and adorable animals to wilting trees, these are the pop culture moments you might have missed from the region.

Kishore Das 

The Indian photographer was one of five winners of the Dubai-based Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award’s (HIPA) June Instagram photo contest, the theme of which was “Your Pet.”

HIPA Secretary General, Ali bin Thalith explained the reason for the theme in a press release, saying: “The relationship between humans and their pets is deeply ancient. The quality of its emotions is complex; it’s rich in detail, situations and beautiful in its spontaneous reactions.”

Das won for this image taken in 2016 at the Sacribel Elephant Camp in India’s Karnataka state. “I was catching a scene in the distance when I suddenly noticed this little elephant playing with one of the caretakers near me. I wanted to capture this perfect emotional moment, so I had to use my 70-300 mm zoom lens. One of the reasons that I love this photo is because it was the baby elephant who approached and showed his closeness and interdependence,” Das said in the press release. 

It's a major win for Das, who only began a full-time photography career in February last year, after quitting his job in IT.

Gurumiran

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by miran gurunian (@gurumiran)

The veteran of the Beirut indie scene (real name Miran Gurunian) pays tribute to his Armenian roots with his latest single “Partsratsoum.” The song is based on a poem by Vahan Tekeyan, an Armenian poet and activist, known as The Prince of Armenian Poetry.

“I related a lot to the story — which is a popular poem in schools,” Gurunian told Arab News. “I composed the music to reflect the theme, which is about the advice offered by a father to his son: Aim, reach, and rise high, but take along your loved ones, because the higher up one reaches, the colder and lonelier it gets.” The track has a jazz-y, folk-y feel, with Makram Aboulhosn’s double bass, Delaney Stöckli’s cinematic string arrangement and Dani Shukri’s stuttering drum beat underpinning Gurunian’s typically tasteful guitar work. And it was written in a single day. “Everything fell into place effortlessly,” Gurunian said. 

Zahed Sultan 

“Born to a Kuwaiti father and Indian mother, I had the fluidity to straddle both cultures; navigating being bullied and feeling shame to find my (super)power,” the London-based multimedia artist wrote of his latest single, “Hindi Majnoon.” He described the track — auto-tuned vocals over a pounding Bollywood-style beat — as “a tribute to people who were ‘othered’ for being different in whichever way while growing up.” The accompanying video, shot between Kuwait and London, is, he said, “a journey through industrial crevices and societal tropes laced with nostalgia to bring you closer to the experience of migrant ‘workers’ living in Kuwait.”

Tayar

The Arabic indie duo (singer-songwriter Ahmad Farah and producer and filmmaker Bader Helalat) have released a new two-track EP called “Khams Sneen.” The title track started out as a folk song, according to Farah, but has since morphed into a largely synth-driven indie-pop number. It’s heavily inspired by US duo MGMT, Farah told Arab News, because “they wrote a lot of songs that discussed childhood and also had a sense of absurdity.”

Sara Naim

The Dubai-based photographer’s striking 2019 image “Broken Palm” is part of “Chemistry of Feeling,” a community exhibition of analog photography that runs until Sept. 21 at Dubai’s Gulf Photo Plus. “Drawing on the delicate connections between a tumultuous past year for human relationships and photography, this exhibition locates moments of slowness, micro- and macro- revolution, introspection, and the folding priorities of the present, captured in film format,” the gallery says of the show. “We invite viewers to engage with these varied personal stories, and in the process, meditate on what it is to feel, care, and see in a fraught contemporary landscape.”

LUMI 

The much-lauded, often-inactive Lebanese duo — Marc Codsi and Mayaline Hage — dropped the title track of their new EP “Eternity,” a four-track record written between 2019 and 2021 “while our home country Lebanon and the rest of the world went through unprecedented turmoil,” the duo said on social media. The record is “rooted in the feelings and emotions triggered by these strange times.”

On the title track, Hage’s dramatic vocals float over increasingly urgent instrumentation, which, they said, “resonates like an ode to transcendence, to what is above and beyond human experiences and resides inside of us, in a longing to stay connected to that energy. We find ourselves transported in a frenetic and delicious race, suspended between a wild and aggressive electronic rhythm and a transcendent voice coming from another dimension.”


Lebanese filmmaker ‘honored’ to receive prestigious award in Cannes

Lebanese filmmaker ‘honored’ to receive prestigious award in Cannes
The film was directed by Australian-Lebanese filmmaker and journalist Daizy Gedeon. Supplied
Updated 22 July 2021

Lebanese filmmaker ‘honored’ to receive prestigious award in Cannes

Lebanese filmmaker ‘honored’ to receive prestigious award in Cannes

DUBAI: Lebanese documentary “Enough: Lebanon’s Darkest Hour” took home the Movie That Matters Award 2021 at a Better World Fund (BWF) gala in Cannes.

Directed by Australian-Lebanese filmmaker and journalist Daizy Gedeon, the documentary follows her personal and independent introspection into Lebanon’s descent into a state of turmoil over recent years.

Writing on Instagram, Gedeon said: “I am truly honored to have received the Better World Fund’s Movie That Matters Award for my film ‘Enough: Lebanon’s Darkest Hour’ at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Daizy Gedeon (@daizygedeon)

“This film lays bare all the insidious forces currently at work ruining my beautiful homeland, Lebanon.”

Gedeon and her family fled Lebanon in the 1970s during the country’s civil war.

The Movie That Matters Award was established in 2016 and is a rare honor handed by filmfestivals.com to moviemakers with a strong, inspiring message. Only a few flicks have received the award since its creation.

Shot over four years and across four continents, the film highlights the 2019 October revolution and the global social justice movement that was triggered among the millions of Lebanese diasporas who rallied to support their families and friends back home.

The documentary also features exclusive interviews with key political leaders such as prime minister, Saad Hariri, former justice minister, Salim Jreissati, Hezbollah minister, Muhammad Fneich, and governor of the central bank, Riad Salame.

Previous award winners and attendees at the BWF gala include Prince Albert II of Monaco, US actors Sharon Stone and Forest Whitaker, German filmmaker Wim Wenders, French explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, and American singer Mary J. Blige.


Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour discusses viral 1979 painting

Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour discusses viral 1979 painting
Jerusalem in the Heart, 1979. Supplied
Updated 22 July 2021

Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour discusses viral 1979 painting

Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour discusses viral 1979 painting

DUBAI: As you know, most artists develop an interest in art during their childhood and that’s what happened to me. I was good at art in school and I once won a children’s drawings competition for the United Nations when I was about 13. My family, my school and my village regarded me as an artist. When I finished school, it was as if I was brainwashed and couldn’t think of anything except art. 

I studied art, but in Jerusalem there wasn’t an actual art movement. Between 1967 and 1972, there wasn’t any artistic exhibition or activity. But I met some artists in 1972 and we decided to form a group. With the occupation, we printed posters and they were confiscated. Artists were sometimes imprisoned. 

Jerusalem in the Heart, 1979. Supplied

When I first got the idea and did the sketch of “Jerusalem in the Heart,” it was on the occasion of Land Day. I made a nice big sketch of a woman who wasn’t embracing Jerusalem, but an olive tree. But when the time came to execute it, some incident happened that turned my attention to drawing the city of Jerusalem and not the olive tree. With time, the Dome of the Rock became a symbol of Jerusalem and later, a symbol of all of Palestine.

The woman, for me, symbolizes a number of things. During the 1970s and 1980s, she represented revolution and homeland. Another aspect is her external appearance, especially as she wears the traditional embroidered Palestinian dress, which I find very beautiful. I come from the Birzeit village and I saw how my mother and grandmother were doing a lot of the physical work at home, in the fields, and making pottery. It was all done by women. So, they have an important role in society and their symbolism isn’t meaningless but has its roots and history. 

In those days when I painted a woman, I wanted to show her as a working one. I didn’t want her hands to be manicured and delicate. I wanted her to be working on the land, because she represents it. It’s not wrong to be delicate, but I wanted her hands to symbolize her strength and effort in life.