Sundance Interview: Talal Derki on “Of Fathers and Sons”

© BASIS BERLIN Filmproduktion

One can never underestimate the importance of documentary films and the messages they deliver through their stories. Not always the narratives may be appealing to the majority of the viewers since they might deal with heavy subjects. But we all appreciate the stories of real lives revealed to us through these films.

When I watched “Of Fathers and Sons” by Talal Derki, I kept on asking myself throughout the film only one question: “Why does an individual have to risk everything earned at such an unspeakable price: freedom, family, and the opportunity to see their child grow, in order to enter a radical family? What is the purpose of it?” Talal Derki was extremely concise in answering that same question, but by the end of the film, I had no more questions or doubt about his decisions. The filmmaker had a great purpose to serve as a messenger of his land, which was beautifully translated into a provocative and very education film.

During the Sundance Film Festival, I had the pleasure to discuss some of these painful subjects raised in “Of Fathers and Sons” with the director Talal Derki. I sincerely hope, you will find this interview a comprehensive and informative read.

MOVIEMOVIESME: Firstly, I would like to thank you for your film. I believe you have been through very tough two years as you tried to enter into the radical family that we meet in your documentary. Could you please talk a little bit about your background and the reasons that led you to make this film?

Talal Derki: I was born in Damascus, Syria. Then I studied filmmaking in Athens, Greece. I made a film about the revolution in Syria which was called “Return to Homs”, where I talked about what led this revolution to military actions, and what happened to the city of Homs. After that, I witnessed the movement of a lot of people to become more radical. Some of them becoming Jihadist.

I witnessed deaths of many teenagers and kids who were involved in this war – from different sides. But what was especially important for me was the religious aspect of it. I saw many things which did not become part of the first film but never left me alone. I am also a father. And even if I were not, I thought about my father, how he brought me up. Now, generations grow up in Syria who have seen no other life other than war. It has been almost seven years, since the war. So, for many kids life has had no other background except war.

I wanted to understand the relation between a father and a son. Because it is a bit power in the Middle East and in the Muslim world. The father is the authority, who decides for everyone – all the members of the family. And his influence is very strong.

I thought this film was urgent. I had to do this film. I had the opportunity to get an access there, I had the experience in a war zone, I knew the locations and the people – local people – my people. And if I wouldn’t tell this story in a cinematic way, nobody would. This is what I believe makes it a special film – because it fits in my way and into my style of following people and learning the story. I tell a story about a generic topic but showing it through a human life, which is very important.

MOVIEMOVESME: You mentioned about human life. And as we talk about your characters – Abu Osama’s family, there is a scene where he tells his son to take a gun and shoot the two-year-old girl who is not wearing a Hijab. How far do you think he got with his parenthood?

Talal Derki: Let me tell you something. In 2011, when I met my wife Heba, who is the assistant director in this film, she belonged to a religious family and was forced to wear a Hijab. She said nothing will change in this revolution. They will still force me to wear the Hijab and to stay home. Only when we got married she could take it off, because then this was my responsibility. And that was what happened. From the first day of our marriage, she took off the Hijab.

For me, that was a lot about this scene and this film. I tried to hide all of this information when making the film – everything about my life, my background, from social media. I couldn’t show that I was an open-minded person, believed in freedom and equality between man and woman, open-minded to love freedom, love life, happiness. This information scared me. Because if Al Qaeda found out that the guy they trusted and who lived with them for years, that his wife does not wear her Hijab, it could cost me my life.

In that scene in the film, Osama tells his youngest son – Hatab to take the gun and shoot the girl. This was a license to use violence against women. And that was also a license to use violence against each other, I mean they punish their children to beat each other, and they beat them as well. For me, this was a way of understanding the legacy of violence and the legacy of war. How those were connected to each other – violence, war, and Jihad. You cannot take those out of each other in Arab war or Muslim countries.

If you look back at the past history. In every country, when there was chaos or something missing in the system, immediately the Jihadists appeared. For example in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. When there is bombing in the area, people become more radical, more religious. That is when the Jihadists find the right place to poison the minds of the society.

MOVIEMOVESME: You talked about the fear of losing your life when making the film. And I remembered the film “Last Men in Aleppo” which I saw at Tribeca festival. There was an interesting moment about the underground activism. But when you were in that situation and also had limited access to media. There was still the risk that somebody could find out something from someone…

Talal Derki: Yes, I know the film and the director. We are old friends.

Well, what can I say? Yes, it was very scary. The country is divided between the dictatorship and the gangsters, and the Jihadists. And their ideologies – they are dreaming of making a caliphate. And we are the people who are open-minded, who want freedom, who are liberated. We have lost the geography, the land. We cannot live here, we cannot live there. We are a target for anyone, nobody can protect our lives.

I cannot give up. I am a warrior inside me – maybe with a camera, maybe as an artist. I cannot say: ‘Okay, take the country. Take the history. Kill each other. Destroy everyone. Kill everyone around.’ This is also kind of my resistance – to be there, to tell how the life looked like, and to understand. It’s not about criticizing or making them look stupid. No. We all need to understand where all this violence and this brutality is coming. So, I thought with my experience, I was only one who could do it. There was something inside me that all the time asked me to do it. So I thought, I must be careful, I must take into account every step I will make, to be sure there was no place for mistakes.

MOVIEMOVESME: There was a moment in the film when Abu Osama loses his leg in the minefield. And he had the faith that it was the God’s will. People die every day and he justifies it all saying that is what God wants. Don’t you think it is sad to exploit the name of God in such a way?

Talal Derki: This is what has been happening throughout our human history. They use God to send people to death. He has faith. He believes in his ideology. I chose him as the character of my film because he is 100% crazy about what he believes in – about his ideology, about the Jihadists and caliphate. That’s what I needed to learn from him – his way of life, how he treats his kids as they grow. The kids are very sensitive – they are victims of this war, like women, because they do not have the right to choose how to live.

We need to support those kids – Syrian kids, Arab kids, kids from the Muslim world. Kids are sensitive like a glasses. If you hurt them, they will break and that’s the end. Until now, even if I grew in a family that is very open-minded, combating with a society – because I’m Kurdish – even with that, in schools teachers used to beat us. There was a lot of violence against us, either with words or with hands. I feel like I am still in therapy. I am still treating myself to understand, to be equal, to be capable to do something in this life.

MOVIEMOVESME: You said that you wanted to explore the relationship between a father and a son. There was a moment in the film when Osama – the little boy – goes out and fights with the other kids because of religion.

Talal Derki: Well, because he cares about religion and God. Because there is so much pressure. I mean, if you grow up in a normal situation, you do not need to curse any religion, because the religion didn’t do anything to you. While he – when he gets angry, he would curse God or religion or the prophet. And this is what makes all the kids around him, and even his relatives unsympathetic toward him. He is alone.

There is a lot of pressure – his father named him Osama after Osama Bin Laden, so from the day he was born, his paths are chosen for him – what he has to be. And he has a weak body. He is notorious, he used to lie that he prayed when he didn’t. And when they figure out, his father beat him a lot. I believe he is a kid that must not go to Jihad, but should go to a normal school and get an education.

But these are things that happen in life, and you cannot understand why it has to happen this way.

MOVIEMOVESME: And also, as a father and son – they are his flesh and blood. But he sends all his children to the military camp to become Jihadist. So they are eventually going to die one day.

Talal Derki: That’s the thing. He is a father who loves his kids. And we know that not only because we see him hug and kiss them in the film, but because he is a father. And all the fathers do love their kids. At the same time, he said goodbye to them. You remember the scene with the sheep when he said that thank God that he told Abraham to sacrifice an animal instead of his son. But, he wants to do it in any case. And he also wants to have four kids a year from his two second wives.

MOVIEMOVESME: Even more. I think they were discussing how many more kids he wanted.

Talal Derki: Remember this scene? How much is explains about the society and the women in that society? Remember also the scene when he returned from the hospital after he lost his leg? His wife was screaming and crying in the other room. And he told her: “Shut up, otherwise I will destroy the house above your head.” Because even the voice of a woman is a crime – a sin. Because there was a strange man in the house who heard her voice. For him, that was a sin.

MOVIEMOVESME: Do you believe this will ever end?

Talal Derki: This will end when all the nations will start taking care. When, for example, the United Nations will interfere in these societies and observe the education, the school, as well as the education at home. Then it will end. Then the Jihadists will not find a place anymore to interfere with any nation.


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