Kudos to the Academy’s documentary branch for plucking this lesser-known choice out of its shortlist and giving it a top five berth over something more mainstream like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’m sure it pissed off a mighty contingent of moviegoers (and maybe even the Academy at large, who I’m sure would have coasted Neville’s film to an easy win). I’m not one of those inconvenienced people. I think Of Fathers and Sons is the more important film that will ultimately stand the test of time. If you’re wondering why, then go ahead and watch it. It’s streaming for free on Kanopy. It’s available to buy or rent on services like iTunes and Amazon. It’s short and more worth your while than much of whatever is playing at your local cinema right now (unless it’s a repertory cinema, in which case I defer to the classics). Trust me on this.
Maybe you need more context? Well, sure. I can give it to you. Of Fathers and Sons paints us a picture of an Islamic jihadist family living in Syria. The father works as both a sniper and mine remover for the al-Nusra Front, and his fanaticism is so great that he has named his eight children after prominent leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He begins sowing the seeds of jihadism in his offspring, and it quickly becomes apparent that many of them are absorbing his teachings. But not all of them. One in particular is keen on going to school and getting a decent education, not interested is he in the violence and rhetoric his father espouses. Nor does he take to the terrorist training his father prescribes. On this he is miles apart from his oldest brother, who seems excited at the prospect of becoming a jihadist soldier. He takes his training in stride and seems compelled to walk in his father’s footsteps. But these brothers don’t fight about their diverging paths. No animosity or bad blood arises. The moment they go separate ways, they give each other a final, friendly hug. One is left to wonder if it will be the last hug they ever give.
Aside from the remarkable access we get to a section of the world we would otherwise be completely shut out from, the film raises some interesting moral and ethical considerations regarding filmmaker Talal Derki’s involvement. One wonders, for instance, if Derki had a duty to try to counter or nullify his subject’s fanatical rhetoric in a covert way, so that he could try to save more children from becoming jihadists. Or does the mere fact that he puts his whole life on the line by pretending to be sympathetic to those views enough of a counterbalance? Had Derki not done so, this film would not exist, and who knows if someone else would have dared to do something similar. We would be worse off not having such a document, so perhaps one can make a compelling case that Derki did exactly what he was supposed to.
At its heart, this film perceptively asks us to hold our vitriol for a short while, and to see what the face of jihadist fundamentalism really looks like. What we end up seeing is not the face of pure evil. These people, after all, are capable of love and emotion. When someone loses a leg to an explosion, the display of dismay and grief is palpable. Instead, this is a face etched in a militant adherence to religious precepts. There is no room for doubt in their minds: these precepts are Truth, and those who don’t recognize this are the enemy. A few days before, I was musing (somewhat ironically, as it turns out) that religion is deadlier than disease. It is capable of taking more lives than it saves. Of Fathers and Sons pus that into rather striking perspective, contending with so much inevitability and loss due to beliefs in events that may never come to fruition.