Until 2013, few Syrians had heard of Talal Derki, a low-profile film director, left wandering through the streets and cafes of Beirut after his abrupt departure from a country in turmoil.

Since graduating from the High Institute of Cinematographic Art and Television in Athens in 2003, he had worked for various production houses in Syria but achieved little acclaim, attracting minimal attention from critics and fellow directors.

This year, he heads to the 91st Academy Awards, where he is nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for his film Of Fathers and Sons

Of Kurdish origin, Derki left his home city Damascus in 2012 at the age of 35. It was one year into the conflict and he lived briefly in neighboring Lebanon before settling in Berlin. One year later, he released his first masterpiece, Return to Homs, which was written and directed by Derki himself, winning the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Prize Jury.

The Hollywood Reporter called his film, which follows the devolution of the rebellion in Syria’s third city, “an unflinching, rousing piece of civil war reportage, literally dispatched from the conflict’s front lines.”

The forgotten director suddenly became an overnight celebrity, constantly in the limelight, touring world capitals and collecting one award after another.

Of Fathers and Sons

His new film tells the story of a radicalized Sunni Muslim family in northwestern Syria, with whom Derki lived and went undercover, pretending to be a supporter of their jihadist cause. Speaking to Asia Times, Derki said: “We filmed in Idlib and its countryside for a total of 330 days, starting in early 2014. We finished in October 2016.”

The film’s protagonist is Abu Osama, a Syrian jihadist who had been in prison until he was released by a general amnesty in 2011. He dreamed of establishing an Islamic caliphate in Syria, and of “bequeathing violence,” according to the director, to his two sons, Ayman, 12, and Osama, 13. The children are shown kneeling at their father’s knees, looking up to him as a role model.

“One is named after Osama Bin Laden, and the other, after Ayman al-Zawahiri,” the former and current leaders of Al-Qaeda, the filmmaker explained. 

Although a declared atheist, Derki prayed with the family on a daily basis, posing as a pious Muslim. With little access to international media, they did not recognize his celebrity face from Wikipedia or various entertainment websites. 

“I told them that I had just emerged from ignorance and had seen the light, that I was coming to live with them and learn from them, and to put my expertise as a filmmaker at their service,” he said. 

Derki follows the life of young Osama, who defuses landmines and re-sells explosive material to other militiamen. The boy decides to follow in his father’s jihadist career – despite being a weakling – and joins Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.

In one scene, the brothers are asked to kill their cousin, a two-year-old girl, for failing to wear the hijab. The Islamic headscarf is common in conservative Muslim societies, but traditionally worn only when a girl reaches puberty. One child proudly tells his father that he chopped off the head of a bird, “just like you did to that man.”

In the film, Abu Osama’s foot is blown off by a landmine, but he is assured by comrades that he will find it waiting for him in paradise. Abu Osama eventually defected from al-Nusra, after it distanced itself from the al-Qaeda franchise, and joined a new organization now active on the Syrian battlefield called Hurras al-Deen (Guardians of Religion).

The film was released in November 2018, one month after Abu Osama was killed.

Childhoods lost

The real protagonists of the movie were Osama’s two children, whose childhood was ruined by the war.

“Children are like glass,” said Derki of the boys. “If it breaks, it’s broken.” Growing up through the past eight years of the Syrian war, they became “something that we would not wish anyone we love to be like.”

“Children are like glass. If it breaks, it’s broken.”

Derki’s film will strike a raw nerve among an American audience, which watched in bewilderment the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, and President Barack Obama’s promise to eradicate it as part of his global war on terror.

“It’s not Syria-exclusive,” Derki told Asia Times. “Its story can take place in Afghanistan, Libya, or Iraq – anywhere where there is chaos that the jihadists can penetrate.”

It will also raise eyebrows among Middle Easterners – especially Syrians and Iraqis – who lived under the brutal regime of ISIS and other jihadist groups and still suffer from their attacks. The last took place in the Syrian city of Manbij this January, killing four US servicemen. 

The likes of Abu Osama and his comrades promised to establish a state ruled by Islamic law extending to Talal Derki’s native Damascus, the former capital of the Muslim Empire. Instead, Al-Qaeda followers settled for a statelet in the northwestern province of Idlib, which they continue to hold, while ISIS loyalists established a de facto capital in Raqqa, since pounded to dust and demolished by Kurdish warriors and the US-led coalition. 

When ISIS overran vast swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014, many predicted this was a short-lived phenomenon that would soon vanish. Born out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war, it was assumed these groups would disappear when the guns fell silent.

Many analysts claimed the ideological roots of the organization were shaky, as was its power base. Despite claims from President Donald Trump that it has been defeated, ISIS still lives in pockets across Syria and Iraq, as of early 2019.

Its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still alive and has received pledges of support from deadly groups reaching as far as Nigeria and the Phillippines.

Talal Derki’s masterpiece sheds light on the ideological drive behind extremist movements through the lives of ordinary Syrians, proving just how deep-rooted and dangerous they really are, requiring far more than smart bombs and target assassinations to root them out of Syrian society.