EL-GOUNA, Egypt: All the feature-length Arab fictions and documentaries competing at the El-Gouna Film Festival this year are set among two specific demographics. One is poor Egyptians. The other is Arabs living in extremis: whether amid civil war, military occupation, or figures touched by the radical Islamist militancy in Syria.
The most powerful of the works making use of Syria’s “jihadis” is the documentary “Of Fathers and Sons,” written and directed by Syrian-born writer-director Talal Derki. With his cameraman, Derki spent many months (he doesn’t disclose how many) in Idlib province, living with the family of Abu Osama, a sniper and demining expert fighting with the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front.
Abu Osama (b. 1974) is the film’s principal protagonist and Derki who expresses horror at the growth of this militant culture in his country devotes much of his film to conversation with him and his fellow commanders. There is no discussion of how these men came to their beliefs. He focuses on their views of the conflict and their confidence in its ultimate victory.
Derki attracted festival and critical attention in Europe and the Americas with his 2013 debut “Return to Homs,” documenting the gradual crushing of revolutionary ardor in that Syrian city. The film debuted at IDFA, Holland’s prestigious documentary film festival, then went on to take the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance early the following year. More festival prizes ensued.
“Of Fathers and Sons” followed the same trajectory, winning Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize earlier this year. GFF hosted the doc’s Arab world premiere.
Though there are some pleasant visuals in “Of Fathers and Sons,” it makes no pretence to be an aesthetic tour de force. Derki’s is an old-fashioned documentary that seeks to inform. What distinguishes it from journalism is the nuance made possible by his extended proximity to his subjects.
All the men in this film will seem more or less unpleasant to the audiences that will watch it.
Many of the prejudices they express are chilling. One commander remarks that Sufism a mystical, anti-militant form of Islam was once very strong in the village that is the film’s location.
“Now there are no more Sufis,” he remarks, offhandedly, “thank God.”
As the film’s title signals, Derki is less concerned with these men than the legacy of the culture that’s been allowed to thrive in Syria for so many years -- the fruit that “Salafi jihadism” is now harvesting, as he puts it.
Though he sometimes accompanies Abu Osama into the field, Derki is most interested in how he rears his brood of children. Since women are absented from the frame, Abu Osama’s children are half a dozen or so little boys he’s fathered or taken in after his brother was killed.
All are named after their father’s heroes. One boy was named Mohammad Omar to reflect Abu Osama’s regard for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Mohammad Atta, who helped carry out the 9/11 attacks. The boys who spend most time in the frame are Osama, who was around 12 at the start of the shoot, and his little brother Ayman.
There are episodes with the kids that will seem ghoulish to an urbanized audience. When one boy catches a bird that found its way into the house, Derki tells him he should release it, because wild birds can’t live in cages. Some time later the boys walk back into the frame, announcing that they slaughtered it.
“Oh, I told Osama to slaughter it,” Abu Osama explained. “That’s better than it dying from being played with.”
“We put his head down and cut it off,” a boy laughs, “like how you did it, dad, to that man!”
“Allahu akbar!” Abu Osama then laughs.
Some of the macho banter Abu Osama’s colleagues direct at his kids is macabre by many standards -- a view Abu Osama sometimes seems to share -- but the film’s worth doesn’t lie in shocking audiences. It is, rather, in its dismantling of a perception -- admittedly more prevalent outside the Muslim world than within -- that the foot soldiers of militant Salafism are somehow crazed, savage, mentally unhinged or drug-addled. It’s these premises that allow outsiders to imagine that this movement can be defeated by military means alone.
Some of Abu Osama’s faith-based remarks will provoke chuckles among secularists. He believes the birthdate of his boy Mohammad Omar, Sept. 11, 2007, was a response to his prayers. When, partway through the film, he sustains a grievous injury while on the job, he says this too was a gift of God. All that matters is that he can drive a car.
This aspect of Abu Osama’s faith is extreme, but it is not more “Muslim” or “militant” than that of the extremely devout of any faith.
When a pro-regime airstrike hits part of his house where he’d kept a cache of materiel, he expresses greatest regret not for the destroyed arms but for the books he lost.
“I took such care of these books!” he lamented. “I moved them from place to place so the regime couldn’t find them, but God had other plans.”
When some of his associates are amused by his grieving for books, he shouts, “Shut up or I’ll pour gasoline on you and light you on fire. ... Every single book I had was worth more than you and your methods.”
Abu Osama’s rule over his boys is unforgiving in matters of discipline and faith -- as when he gives Osama a thrashing after learning that he cursed Islam -- and his attitude to the female members of his household is stricter still. He shouts angrily when his 2-year-old niece emerges off-frame without a hijab.
Within the sternly defended walls of propriety, however, during his downtime with his boys, Abu Osama appears as warm and nurturing as any father. Derki observes Abu Osama’s behavior with reserve but the emotional heart of the film lies with the kids.
Introduced as a rebellious little boy who worships his father, the camera follows Osama when he goes to military camp where all the boys are kitted out in camouflaged Punjabi dress and black balaclavas and made to train.
Much as the boys complain about their bad-tempered teachers and poor treatment, Osama emerges at the top of his class, ensuring his rapid progress to “Shariah studies” and formal military education. He must leave home and part ways with his little brother Ayman, the pair having been inseparable up to now.
The film follows the very different training the two boys experience at this point. Ayman learns mathematics in a classroom shared with girls. Osama and his fellow balaclava-and-camouflage-clad novitiates do situps while an instructor fires an AK-47 near their heads and feet.
“I’m turning that page of my life and ending this nightmare,” Derki says in the film’s closing voice-over, “with memories of a homeland horribly changed ... [bearing] no resemblance to the one I once knew.”
El-Gouna Film Festival ends Sept. 28.