There’s a sequence early on in Talal Derki’s documentary Of Fathers and Sons that makes your blood run cold. A cheerful preteen boy finds a bird and shows it to his father. The father recommends that he kill the bird so their family can eat it. After it’s been killed, the boy returns to his father and gleefully reports on the slaughter. “We put his head down and cut it off,” he says to his dad, “like how you did it, Father, to that man.”
The boy is Osama and his father is known as Abu Osama, a fighter in the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate group al-Nusra Front. Derki’s film — which hits theaters November 16 — follows the pair, their family, and the band of murderous killers that form their social circle as they all travel through the lawless hellscape of northern Syria at the height of that country’s ongoing civil war. In order to make the movie, Derki, a Syrian Kurd who fled the war and had taken up residence in Berlin, posed as a jihad-sympathetic documentarian and gained the full trust of the al-Nusra warriors for years. The resulting piece of work is eerily calm and casually jaw-dropping in the way it sheds light on what motivates ordinary people to become genocidal death-cultists. We caught up with Derki during a recent trip to New York City and talked about the remarkable filming process, watching young boys get trained to be murderers, and how this movie has endangered and continues to endanger his life.
How did you find your main subject, Abu Osama?
Lots of research. I was searching this area of Syria because this is the area that was established as the center for ISIS and al-Nusra, so all those jihadists moved there from all around the world. They all united in this place in the north of Syria. I had many fixers. I sent them the basic issue of what I’m looking for and we found the kids, and we learned that the father belonged to al-Nusra, and that made things easier. So al-Nusra people who I have access with, they went with me to meet the father, and they asked him to do this film.
And you told him you were sympathetic to al-Nusra’s cause?
This is what I did to win their hearts and to make them trust me. Otherwise, they would not give me the access.
Why do you think they believed you?
Because there are thousands of people who have arrived in Syria with different skills in the past few years. They build all those terrorist groups. This is how it works. You go there and say you grew up in a bad society and you didn’t learn your religion correctly, and now you want to correct all those mistakes and be useful for the jihad. I said I was a very experienced cameraman and they were very positive about that. They gave me support, gave me contacts, and they gave me this access and didn’t harm me. But if they had just one doubt, I could’ve been destroyed. If they have one doubt about me and I’m there, it can end everything: There’s no film; there’s no me anymore. If technical people went through my laptop, they could’ve found conversations and my background, how I really am. Because I’m secular, I don’t have any religion or anything. That’s a red line for them.
How could they not have been more suspicious?
That was my fear all the time. I worked inside and outside of Syria for two-and-a-half years, like an acrobat, you know? I had to have this appearance where they trust me, where they don’t have doubts about me, while at the same time I can be there and make a film. So I was an actor and a filmmaker at the same time.
So you were going back and forth from the front lines of the war to your home in Berlin?
Half of the time during those two-and-a-half years, I was there with a camera. More than 330 days.
How big was the crew?
In the village, we had only two people. The other was a cameraman.
And that person had to also come up with a story about being sympathetic to al-Nusra?
No, no, he’s a total believer. He sympathized with them. He really sympathized with them. But he’s a coward. He’s anti-violence. He never carried a weapon. I taught him in my previous film how to use a camera, and when [the jihad] became very strong, he became more religious than before. Now he doesn’t talk to me, now that he’s figured out what kind of film I was making.
Do you feel bad about deceiving this guy you’d taught?
No. I didn’t have another option. I needed to make my film. I wasn’t a spy that was giving information about people, saying, “Bomb there,” or whatever. I was just in a village with this family to understand, psychologically, how a kid can grow up in this environment. I didn’t criticize. I just captured moments that can answer questions for the audience and for me.
What questions did it answer for you? What do you understand now that you didn’t understand before you shot the film?
Who these people are. What their motivation is. What the keys are. How we can prevent this from happening in the future. What the circle of violence is. And what the legacy of war is and what they believe in, the mythology behind their beliefs. I call it “mythology”; they call it God’s law. So all of this about who these people are, what’s happening in closed rooms, how a person becomes a terrorist. This is how we can dismantle it. This is a war against ideology, not against specific people or groups. They don’t have names. They get killed because they ask for it. This is their quest, to be killed for Allah. To be a martyr. Then a new generation continues and a new generation, etcetera, etcetera. So my question was, How can I capture the motivation that makes them capable of bringing people to their side?
And what is that motivation?
There are many things, but I believe the status of education in the Third World is the most dangerous thing. The violence in schools, violence in houses — all of this can lead people, at some point, to carry weapons. We can’t make people not believe. People need belief because it’s the hope for what happens after death. We can’t get rid of religion. But what we can do is take the violence out of religion, out of society. When you grow up in a way where there are strict laws against harming children in schools, that anyone who breaks that law can go to court, even if they’re their parents, then you can be sure that, slowly, slowly, if chaos happens in the country, people won’t carry weapons. They’ll be against violence because that’s how they grew up.
How hard was it to go back and forth from being at the front and being at your new home in Berlin?
It was really bad. Very scary. Especially when I was back in Berlin. I was a shadow, a ghost of a person. When you have a percentage that it’s possible you’ll get killed, you cannot be satisfied. You can’t be fine with it. Even if you know you’re in Europe or in one month you can go to Europe, still, maybe something bad can happen to you. Now that the shooting is over, even though it was two years ago, I’m still recovering. It changed me totally, this film. I will never do something like this again. I don’t have the power to take that risk again. Because this kind of risk … it’s not that I’m on the front line. I have a skill for that, filming and knowing, There’s a sniper. There’s a bullet. There’s a bomb. That’s easier, actually, compared to the fear that somebody can arrest you and do very bad things to you, and you live with that somebody. [Rolls up right shirtsleeve to reveal a tattoo of rings around his wrist.] I got this tattoo so I wouldn’t go back.
Because tattoos are forbidden and if they saw it, they’d know you weren’t really religious?
Yeah. I knew it was the only way to prevent myself from going back and being in real danger.
Did al-Nusra ever come close to figuring out that you were lying?
No. Never. Even after filming, he communicated with me — Abu Osama — after the end of filming. I was at Sundance in a fellowship program in 2017 and I told him, “Please don’t contact me again because the German secret service, they’re investigating me about being in Syria. I have to block all your accounts, you and your friends, until everything goes away.” And he said, “Yes, yes, Abu Youssef” — this was my nickname — “don’t worry. Write me; call me when you feel safe.” I never called him. And I heard that he was just killed. The 17th of October of this year. Two, three weeks ago.
Oh, wow, Abu Osama just died?
Yes. He was dismantling a car bomb. There’s a video. Someone was filming him from his mobile at the moment he was bombed.
Have you watched the video?
I watched the video. It’s far away, but it’s clear what happened.
Are you worried, now that the movie’s public, that people from al-Nusra are going to come after you?
There are people I don’t know who send me bad things, promising something, threatening me. Two of his brothers are threatening me, and some people I don’t know. Some people suddenly sent me messages — they’re jihadists — they say, “You don’t have a right to publish this.”
Are you worried about that?
I’m worried, yeah. I stopped doing interviews in Arabic.
Have you taken security precautions? Do you have a bodyguard or something?
No, no. That wouldn’t help. Not with them. That would be for neighbors or people in your area — they can stop them. But these people, if they want to do something …
They do it.
They do it. And, at the same time, I don’t want to live in fear. I’m a filmmaker. I’m an artist. Freedom, for me, is the most valuable thing. To have a bodyguard? To have police at your door? It’s the worst thing you can ever have.
I want to talk about a specific scene. There’s a part where a group of young boys create a makeshift bomb and start playing around with it —
This was usual. As a filmmaker, you always have this judgment inside: Are you a witness, or a person who should do something, should be active? I usually asked them to not do it, but at some point, I said, Okay, I have to film it. Because it happens all the time. People should know. When you have a father like this, what can his kids play with? What are their toys? That said, I asked them to put it in a plastic bottle, instead of a glass bottle, to make it less strong. Filming it was really … my adrenaline rose more than in any other scene. It’s a game for kids in this village. For me, it was a moment when I said, I have to do this. I have to put this in the film. Because people should know. This is what the film is about.
What was the moment during filming when you were most frightened?
I mean, there were many moments. I can tell you that the whole period was very scary, especially the last year, when I started filming in the camp.
Oh, you mean the al-Nusra training camp where the young boys are sent to?
Yes, the camp with the boys. I wasn’t living with the family anymore. I was living with a warrior, a fighter, a jihadist, someone I didn’t know. I had to be really certain about waking up and praying in the morning, how to present myself. People would come and ask me questions about my background, about what I do. I always had to be aware and present myself correctly. A simple mistake could destroy everything.
When the boys are at the training camp, the instructor keeps firing a rifle right next to them to teach them not to be afraid. Did you ever see one of the boys get hit by a bullet?
No, no. At least where I was, it didn’t happen. But that was happening often. Nothing bad happened that I saw. But it can be. I tried, in most of the film, to not show direct violence. Only when they kill the sheep.
Right, the scene where they ritually slaughter a sheep. Why did you choose to put that in there?
Because there should be a moment when blood comes out. This is a moment where they are sacrificing, and sacrificing is the main idea of the film. The father is sacrificing his sons, even when he shows love to them.
How has the movie been received in the Arab world?
It’s been received well, actually. Film festivals there are small and connected to people who understand this illness in society, and they know this is a deep critique of our society. Not only to jihad but to the mentality of fathers, of masculine power. It’s a dictatorship, the masculine power of fathers in our society.
But do you think you’ll go back when the war is over?
No. Me, personally? No. I made a lot of enemies because of my films, and those enemies are dangerous. And life is short, you know? You cannot change anything. I’m 40 years old, and I don’t want to end in a tragic way.
What are you working on right now?
I’m producing a documentary, a Syrian documentary film, for my friend. It’s an interesting project. We’ll talk about it soon. And also I want to write a script, fiction. I have something in my mind and want to do it.
Not about Syria. I told you, I’m still recovering. I work in mythology. I do epic films. The Return to Homs, Of Fathers and Sons, and the upcoming film, it’s about mythology. It’s about people who are really special, in a way.
How do you find hope?
There are moments when I play with my son and feel like, This is eternity. We run. We play. I look at his smile. We look at nature. I don’t know about hope, but we need to keep struggling because we exist and we deserve better. A human has this brain, and he can make a world better than this one. He can make things easier, make less tragedy in our lives. Without hope, without dreams, without plans … if you don’t have a plan, you’ll surrender and be lost. You won’t take any steps farther. You won’t change anything. This is the meaning of struggle: hope.
Of Fathers and Sons was nominated for an Oscar in 2019 for Best Documentary Feature.