Razmig Bedirian talks to Syr­ian-Kur­dish di­rec­tor Talal Derki about life un­der­cover with ex­trem­ists

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

For more than two years, Syr­ian-Kur­dish film­maker Talal Derki lived among fight­ers of the Al Nusra Front in Syria’s con­flict-stricken Idlib. There, he was known as Abu Yusef Al Al­mani (Abu Yusef the Ger­man) and as far as the ex­trem­ists knew, he was one of them. He prayed with them, ate with them and pre­tended to sym­pa­thise with their goals of es­tab­lish­ing a caliphate to rule over the Le­vant. To their knowl­edge, he was there doc­u­ment­ing the ex­trem­ists’ way of life in a favourable light.

What he has made is an Os­car-nom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary called Of Fathers and Sons, a chill­ing and cau­tion­ary tale that de­tails how ha­tred and fun­da­men­tal­ism is trans­mit­ted from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. The doc­u­men­tary fo­cuses on Abu Osama, a fa­ther who is pre­par­ing his two sons to join the ter­ror­ist move­ment.

“When they are old enough, I will send them into bat­tle, if the Nusra doesn’t send them first,” Abu Osama is seen say­ing in the doc­u­men­tary’s trailer. His sons, Osama and Ay­man – named af­ter prom­i­nent Al Qaeda lead­ers Osama Bin Laden and Ay­man Al Zawahiri – have dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions to their up­bring­ing. While Osama is ea­ger to fol­low in his fa­ther’s path, Ay­man longs to re­turn to school.

The doc­u­men­tary screens at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arts Cen­tre on Mon­day, Novem­ber 25, as part of Cine­maNA, cu­rated by the univer­sity’s Film and New Me­dia Pro­gramme in part­ner­ship with Sor­bonne Univer­sity Abu Dhabi. “Chil­dren are in­her­ently in­no­cent and im­pres­sion­able. I am a fa­ther my­self, so it was re­ally dif­fi­cult watch­ing these chil­dren be­ing swayed into the ji­hadist ide­ol­ogy. The first thing they were taught by the Nusra was how to wear a mask and con­ceal their iden­tity. When asked for their names, they would re­ply that they had none. They were taught to be ji­hadists be­fore they learnt how to be peo­ple.”

Be­sides fac­ing the dan­gers of be­ing in Idlib – a con­flict zone be­ing sub­jected to air strikes from sev­eral na­tions and coali­tions – Derki also had his com­pan­ions’ sus­pi­cions to con­sider. “Idlib was be­ing con­stantly rocked by ex­plo­sions. It was chaos. Rus­sians, Amer­i­cans, the regime and the count­less fac­tions fight­ing in Syria were all bom­bard­ing the area. But be­sides all that, I had to be care­ful not to ac­ci­den­tally re­veal my true iden­tity. If the Nusra found out that I was a sec­u­lar Kurd, they would, with­out a doubt, have killed me. I was also in the con­stant com­pany of a man who en­joyed be­ing in dan­ger. Abu Osama spe­cialised in rig­ging ve­hi­cles with bombs so we were con­stantly sur­rounded by ex­plo­sive ma­te­ri­als,” Derki says, adding that Abu Osama, the main char­ac­ter of his movie, died in a car ex­plo­sion in Oc­to­ber last year.

Derki was in­spired to work on the doc­u­men­tary af­ter notic­ing a rise in fun­da­men­tal­ist think­ing in his home­land. Prior to film­ing Of Fa­ther and

Sons, he worked on an­other doc­u­men­tary, The Re­turn to

Homs – which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in 2014 – and a few short fiction films. “My aim was to re­search the rad­i­cal men­tal­ity spreading in Syria. I wanted to look into it, to un­der­stand it. The doc­u­men­tary is not about the war. The pri­mary fo­cus of the doc­u­men­tary is how chil­dren are be­ing in­doc­tri­nated into ex­trem­ist thought. The mes­sage of the story is not ex­clu­sive to Syria, ei­ther, there is a rise in rad­i­cal thought across the world. I wanted the doc­u­men­tary to high­light the dan­ger of this ill­ness and to com­bat it us­ing proper ed­u­ca­tion.”

To get an ac­cu­rate and in­ti­mate por­trayal, Derki had to use a small film crew. “It was just me and a cam­era­man,” he says. “Even with such a small team, it took some time for the chil­dren to be­come used to a cam­era be­ing in their pres­ence. To not con­stantly look at the lens. We would have at­tracted too much at­ten­tion if we had a fully fledged team. It wouldn’t be the same movie, ei­ther.”

When asked what as­pect of liv­ing with the ex­trem­ists was the most dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate, Derki says: “How long each day was. Es­pe­cially when we didn’t seem to have any­thing to film. Those were the most dif­fi­cult. There was noth­ing to keep me busy and I had to keep up the act, pre­tend­ing I sym­pa­thised with the ideals they were rais­ing their chil­dren with. There were mo­ments when it all be­came too much … when I couldn’t take it any more.”

To­wards the end of his time in Idlib, Derki’s cam­era­man had to leave the city and Derki had to find some­one else to shoot the fi­nal five min­utes of the doc­u­men­tary. “A Tu­nisian emir in Idlib was ask­ing ques­tions about us, and we knew our time was up. I just had one more scene to film – the one with Osama at the Sharia camp – and once I found a cam­era­man to shoot the footage, we de­cided that was it. We couldn’t stay there any longer.”

But for Derki, go­ing back to Ber­lin wasn’t as easy as leav­ing it. Worn out and de­pressed, he had to go through a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion phase af­ter re­turn­ing from Syria. He also sought to strengthen his re­la­tion­ship with his fam­ily as a way to over­come the anx­i­eties and fears that had built up dur­ing his time with the Al Nusra Front, who have since re­branded to Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.

“I had to go through a pe­riod of re­cov­ery. I went through a pe­riod of self-re­flec­tion where I con­tem­plated my place in this uni­verse and the road we are trav­el­ling to­gether as a species,” Derki says, adding that he re­cently had his fore­arm tat­tooed, a sym­bolic ges­ture that marked the end of his time with the ex­trem­ists.

“Not that I could go back even if I wanted to,” he says. “I’ve re­ceived death threats and was warned against re­turn­ing to Syria and Tur­key. I’ve made my­self a tar­get with this doc­u­men­tary.”

But for Derki it may all have been worth it. “I feel in­cred­i­bly lucky with all the at­ten­tion the doc­u­men­tary has re­ceived. It was screened in cin­e­mas across the world and is now be­ing fea­tured in sev­eral Euro­pean chan­nels.”

Derki is now writ­ing a se­ries pilot for a US pro­duc­tion com­pany. Though he wouldn’t di­vulge more de­tails about the pro­ject, he did say they were based on ideas and notes he had from pre­vi­ous projects.

Of Fathers and Sons screens at NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Cen­tre at 7.30pm on Mon­day, Novem­ber 25. The screen­ing is free, but regis­tra­tion is re­quired. The film will be fol­lowed by a Q&A ses­sion with the di­rec­tor via Skype. More in­for­ma­tion is at www.nyuad-arts­cen­ter.org

Ba­sis Ber­lin Film­pro­duk; Florian Reimann; Ba­sis Ber­lin

‘Of Fathers and Sons’, di­rected by Talal Derki, far left, fo­cuses on Abu Osama, a fa­ther who is pre­par­ing his sons for a life of ex­trem­ism

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