Screen Editor Gethin Morgan reviews Of Fathers and Sons, which had its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on 8 June and is nominated for the Grand Jury Award.

The Friday night showing was a sell-out for one of Doc/Fest 2018’s most anticipated features but, despite its incredible journalistic achievements, the film doesn’t quite live up to its tantalising concept.

Director Talal Derki returns to his homeland of Syria, posing as a sympathetic war photographer, to document the life of radical minesweeper Abu Osama and the many sons he is raising to be Jihadi soldiers.

There’s so much potential there and, it has to be said, the boldness of Derki to put himself in such a dangerous, morally repulsive position is admirable. However, the film struggles to realize that potential due to one serious flaw.

Abu is a compelling character to follow. His faith is never in question and beliefs are set in absolute stone. Although he does get plenty of screen time, Derki decides to focus largely on the children and their indoctrination.

To see such young, blameless children brainwashed is certainly a shocking sight. However, seeing them swearing, fighting, throwing rocks at girls and making bombs to play with makes it incredibly hard to connect to them in anyway. There’s a vast distance between screen and audience because not enough sympathetic qualities are on show.

More forgiving viewers may see past this problem (after all, they are just kids) but nevertheless it is hard to sympathise with someone that you know will become a Jihadi fighter, even when it’s not necessarily their fault. While it is very provocative to see an abhorrent extremist cuddle and play with his children, there’s a real coldness to the experience.

Regardless of its flaws this is an important story to tell. There is phenomenal insight into the upbringing of radicals and the impact environment has on shaping a person. While it is very difficult to connect with for long periods of time, it is a devastating portrayal of how, in the wrong hands, people can have no bearing whatsoever on their ideals and beliefs.

Of Fathers and Sons is a hugely impressive undertaking and a worthwhile look from a rarely seen perspective. Sadly, the tonal confusion leaves you feeling a little cold.

3 stars

Image Credit: Sheffield Doc/Fest

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