Of Fathers and Sons ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

[6]

This is the first film in recent memory that I came close to turning off, repeatedly, not out of boredom but because its subject was just too painful to watch. I made it through, but at times I found myself grappling with the ethics of a film that, by nature of its design, entails watching as otherwise normal little boys are systematically turned into monsters, their minds poisoned by a deadly jihadist ideology. Knowing that they will all squander their young lives getting blown to bits for Al Nusra, Of Fathers and Sons is a bit like watching children play in traffic.

But of course, it's not that simple. These are the sons of Abu Osama, who is shown to be a loving father in spite of, or to some extent because of, his fundamentalist beliefs. And as Of Fathers and Sons makes clear, Al Nusra is in part a response to Syrians feeling helpless as Russians, and then the Russian-backed Assad, destroy their country. Like white supremacists, these jihadists believe their hate-filled agenda is their means to secure a future for their children.

When Abu Osama loses a foot to a landmine, the tenor changes somewhat, his strident authoritarian behavior dented by injury and weakness. This confuses his sons, and it's the only time we see any doubt that the Prophet always knows best. But this is soon erased, when several of the kids are sent to a training camp to learn military maneuvers and sharia law. Director Talal Derki (who posed as a pro-jihadi journalist in order to gain unprecedented access) ends on a small upbeat note, but it is a mere drop in a hopelessly poisoned well.

Among other complications, Of Fathers and Sons seriously challenged a firm conviction that I have as a father. I want all parents to succeed, even if I don't agree with their methods, because I know how hard it is to raise good kids. But this was an instance when I wanted to see a father fail. I wanted his children to see through his lies and spurn his values. And I recognized that, if the view were reversed, that's exactly how Abu Osama would feel about me.