Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Of Fathers and Sons (2017)

Unfortunately, as long as the wars there rage on, documentary filmmakers will be drawn to the Middle East. Of course, a war zone is going to bring out the best and worst of humanity, creating the sort of naturally dramatic situations that make for compelling film making. One of the strongest films in last year's round-up of Academy Award nominated documentaries was “Last Men in Aleppo,” which was about the bloody Civil War in Syria. This year, the same category returns to the same country with “Of Fathers and Sons.” You can't blame the Academy for being attracted to this stuff because it's undoubtedly important types of films being made in a contested area.

Much like many of these other documentary makers, the director of “Of Fathers and Sons” risked life and limb to tell this story. Talal Derki pretended to be sympathetic to Salafi jidahism and would-be terrorists in the area in order to gain access to the families. He eventually befriends Abu Osama, a Muslim extremist who works as a mine remover. Abu is a huge fan of the Taliban and the September 11th terrorists attacks, naming the oldest of his two sons after Osama bin Laden. (Giving the kid the name Osama Osama.) Derki's camera follows the man and his sons, watching as the kids are indoctrinated into the ways of violence and hate. After Abu has a leg blown off by a mine, the boys are sent off to a terrorism training camp.

By taking his camera into the home of a fanatical would-be terrorist, Derki does an unlikely thing: He humanizes extremists. We see Abu doing normal, everyday thing. He plays with his kids, frequently in the kind of way any father would. He sits around, eating with his friends and talking about the things that concern him. (Which just happens to be punishing infidels.) More than anything else, Derki shows that Abu isn't a very good extremist. He is mocked by his neighbors. His attempts to shoot at someone off-screen goes awry, the man claiming his gun jammed. His friends often do not seem impressed by his exuberant shouts of support. Yet, no matter how disgusting or imbecilic a figure Abu is, you can't help but feel sorry for him when he looses his leg or his collection of beloved books are burned.

Yet do not mistake this intimacy for sympathy. Derki does capture some disturbing behavior, made all the more disturbing by how casual it is. The father teaches his sons to speak the language of violence. The boys capture a bird, eventually stabbing it to death and burning the dead body. Dad is not bothered by this behavior. The kids get into fights at school, throwing rocks at teachers and other students. When its discovered one of those boys is starting fights, his father smacks him. While playing with his youngest son, Abu's friend starts casually making jokes about electrocuting the child. Nobody in the household finds any of this unnerving. This is normal for them. When contrast with the youth of the brothers, the easy way they accept this violence becomes more disturbing.

That sense of unease only grows as “Of Fathers and Sons” continues and Osama Osama winds up in a terrorism training camp. Derki watches the horrendous training boys as young as seven undergo. They leap through flaming rings, forced to do chin-ups while being shot at. They even observe their play time through the lens of religious warfare. It's certainly disturbing to watch such young children being shipped off, carrying machine guns and told to kill. Yet Osama – who does poorly in school and can't make friends – flocks to these ideas. Obviously, because he wants to impress his father. In the film's final minutes, as Derki leaves Syria forever, he mentions how Osama would continue down this path of violence, while his brother would focus on school.

It's a sad, sad story. Yet “Of Fathers and Sons” isn't just a story of Islamic extremists. Its theme – of men being taught that violence is the only way they can communicate, of someone substituting actual potential with religious fanaticism – is not exclusive to the war in the Middle East. The disturbing frankness with which Derki captures this behavior definitely makes “Of Fathers and Sons” an important document of a country in crisis. It's not light viewing but films like this should be seen, as its educational in the truest sense of the world. [7/10]

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