The Syrian Filmmaker Documenting Jihadi Family Values

Why you should care

Because his home looks like something out of Mad Max.

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“I learned to speak directly to the eyes,” says Talal Derki. He’s sitting on a couch in a rented condo in Park City, Utah, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. With tattooed arms, a well-trimmed goatee and penetrating green eyes, the 40-year-old Syrian filmmaker projects an intensity and sincerity that must’ve helped convince a jihadi family to welcome him into their home for two years.

Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2010, many of the country’s leading filmmakers have turned their cameras to a simple goal: documenting the yearslong conflict. Their efforts have earned them critical praise and awards. This year, Derki won Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize for Of Fathers and Sons, five years after his film Return to Homs took the same honor. Another Syrian, Firas Fayyad, was a 2017 Grand Jury Prize winner for his documentary Last Men in Aleppo. The question facing these filmmakers today: What now?

To gain access to Idlib province, Derki learned to mimic the vocabulary used by new recruits to the jihadi movement.

“Before the war, everything was taboo,” Derki begins, explaining how telling complex stories was hard in Syria. So was securing financing and worldwide distribution. Now, though small in number, Syrian filmmakers remind him of postwar Italian ones, when famed directors like Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini emerged from the shadow of Mussolini and World War II. “All the difficulties built stronger character,” he says. It made them better filmmakers, as it could for expatriated Syrians.

Posing as a jihad-supporting war photographer, Derki filmed Of Fathers and Sons in Idlib province in Syria — at the time almost completely outside government control. The documentary has scenes, both mundane and surreal, of Abu Osama, a member of the al-Qaida–affiliated Nusra Front, and two of his eight sons (his wife and daughters are never seen). Osama looks for mines in one frame and plays lovingly with his 12- and 13-year-old sons in the next. Typical troublemakers at the start of the film — they taunt passing schoolgirls — the boys are forced to contemplate in very real terms the life their father has chosen as a soldier of God. By the end of the 98-minute film, two years have passed, and the older son has been sent to a military training camp, where he dons a balaclava and fatigues, one step closer to joining his father’s holy war.

Derki, who lives in Berlin, was born in Damascus to a Kurdish family already familiar with exile. His grandfather came to Syria from Turkey after the first Kurdish uprising in the 1920s. Derki is the only one of three brothers to become an artist. Since he was a child, he explains, film was essential to his experience of the outside world. He would burn through VHS tapes of American Westerns and ’80s action films like Mad Max.

After studying fine arts in Damascus, Derki moved to Greece for film school. He made a couple of short films and says he probably would never have progressed to feature-length documentaries had the war not started (his passion then, and now, is fiction). But start it did, and he found himself with a camera at the center of a nonfiction story as gripping as the movies he grew up watching. In fact, while filming Return to Homs, he was repeatedly reminded of the apocalyptic Mad Max landscape that his home now resembled.

To gain access to Idlib province, Derki learned to mimic the vocabulary used by new recruits to the jihadi movement — describing how he’d seen “the light of jihad.” And though it felt like a nightmare to live among men espousing radicalism and violence, he was driven by a responsibility to document the conflict. Filmmaking, he insists, is “not about inspiration.… It’s about urgency.”

That urgency has given rise to a new wave of directors bearing witness to the horrors unfolding at home. “I don’t think we can really talk about a generation of documentary filmmakers before the uprising,” says Mohammad Atassi, founder of Bidayyat, a Beirut-based organization that trains and supports Syrian filmmakers. Many young artists have turned to documentaries, explains Atassi, because “the reality sometimes is much stronger than any fiction.” Ali Sheikh Khudr, director of The Cow Farm, a 2016 documentary about a Syrian farmer, has worked with Derki and is also based in Berlin. Films coming out of his country, Khudr says, may have a quality of “improvisation,” but these “films of the moment” have a shared objective: to document everything that’s taking place on the ground.

But this new generation of filmmakers, like their country, is splintered, lacking a unified message. It’s too early to talk about commonality, says Attasi, except, of course, the collective experience of war. “It will take time for people to understand what happened, and they will really start to think about the whole experience in a different way,” adds Khudr. For now, Syrian filmmakers and artists will keep creating what they can with what they have. Khudr, like Derki, wants to make narrative films but feels obligated to contribute to the historical record — “to keep the camera rolling,” he says.

When I ask Derki what’s ahead for him, he describes a project that’s taking shape. It’s about Raqqa, the Islamic State’s former capital, in 2015. And the city’s underground, where artists gathered but couldn’t escape. “What happened to them?” he wonders aloud. How did they survive? He seems to be picturing someone not unlike himself. What would he have done if he’d been trapped in Raqqa?

In effect, he is. So he’ll keep the camera rolling.

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