Not rated, but the content is pretty intense. This is a story about kids where awful things happen to kids. Adults hit them. They are trained to be child soldiers. The father loses limbs trying to defuse a landmine. Everything said is pretty shocking and awful. While it is not rated, that doesn't mean it is for everybody. The odd thing is that I want to show my students this movie because they probably need to see this. But at the same time, I want to shelter them from the content. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Talal Derki
This documentary is going to be so snubbed. It might be the biggest problem with the Academy Awards. This movie is, by far, the most insane of the documentaries. I haven't seen Free Solo or Hale County yet, but this was two years of constantly risking the director's life for a movie that no one has seen. From what I understand about the Oscars, many of the people voting don't actually watch all of the movies, unlike yours truly. (I watch everything available to a pleb like me. I do my best.) Usually, foreign films in the documentary category seem to be even bigger chores for a lot of people. So something like Free Solo is probably going to get a lot more attention than this absolutely insane movie.
Of Fathers and Sons feels like the gun is going to be turned to the camera at any second. Obviously, this documentary got out. This didn't make national news because the documentarian didn't get caught making his own documentary. But this is such an inside look at the philosophy of Al-Qaeda that people probably need to see it. The movie toes that line between distancing the beliefs of the people involved while simultaneously eliciting some emotion for the kids in the story. Abu Osama is completely engulfed in the teachings of the Taliban. He's completely lost from all potential of finding a peaceful lifestyle. The music he listens to is propaganda. He only knows how to communicate in propaganda. He teaches his children propaganda. But the odd thing about Abu Osama is that he is just like his children. He has always been in a world that has hated the West and Christianity. That's kind of what the movie is overall about. We have Abu Osama, a father who is doing everything he believes is right, training his sons to be soldiers for the Taliban. On the other end of the spectrum is the reminder that there are two children in this house who only know of killing. There are so many scenes where the kids are desensitized to things that would absolutely horrify us. They vocally thank God for anything that happens around them, good or evil. Derki has shown a side to war that we, as Americans, tend to find wildly uncomfortable. War itself is terrible, but the involvement of children is particularly despicable. The odd thing of it is that we never really forget that they are children. There are some absolutely simple moments where I could see the children in our house. They go to school. They play soccer. There's this moment that holds two meanings that I kind of want to look at. Considering that he's filming a documentary, Derki is there when one of the boys gets into a fight. This isn't a play fight. It is awkward and violent and personal. And he has to stare at them as they fight. This subject that he's been documenting and has formed a personal bond with is getting wrecked on camera and probably feeling betrayed. But this is a moment that really stresses the dichotomy of what is happening. Boys all over the world fight. I got into a fight. I was just like this kid and I got wrecked, but it happened. But when I went home, I knew that I would be in trouble for fighting, not for losing the fight. This kid feels shame from both embarrassing himself in front of all of his friends, but also that it is on camera and that his parents would not be proud that he lost. That's a weird moment. This moment is what Of Fathers and Sons is all about. It is a reminder of how we are all one people, but completely unable to relate even though certain things work the same. At no point do I think I could hold a conversation with Abu Osama's family because they absolutely hate me and everything I stand for.
There is something captivating about this documentary that really gets my mind focused. It was available on the Kanopy app (something that everyone should have and use often), but the Internet was trash that day. The film is entirely subtitled and the subtitles are embedded in the film. That makes sense. But when the Internet was trash, the images lost important resolution. I refused to miss any lines of dialogue because everything was telling to the value system of a people that I have never encountered. When Abu Osama's books are damaged, I watched that scene four or five times because the Internet kept blinking out. The odd thing is that, in two years, Derki actually has a pretty linear narrative. The boys have an arc that goes in two very different directions. There are some documentaries that simply stay distant. When I write about Minding the Gap, that growth happens pretty organically and you can track these changes well. Of Fathers and Sons pulls out a beginning, middle, and end almost through luck. Both boys start at the same place. One is considered a little more weak than the other, but there's not much that is separating them in terms of identity or ideology. As the film progresses though and father loses limbs, the boys become galvanized in their differences. One grows into the ideal soldier. He hates the Taliban camp, but wants desperately to impress his father and become a killing machine. The other wants to live a humble life. He slightly refuses to grow up, enjoying his childhood despite what everyone around him wants. The trope is kind of flipped on its head. The parents see the weaker of the two boys as almost a failure. This is a father who doesn't view his injury as something preventable. His injury was not because of an accident. His injury was caused by attempting to defuse a landmine for the sake of the Taliban. I'm very puzzled about what I'm supposed to think about Al-Qaeda. In traditional wars, we have zealots. But often, these are people simply fighting for country. I think back on the tales of World War I and how people treated each other then. But I look at Abu Osama and the members of the Taliban within this documentary and I see all of their humanity lost. The narrative that we've been getting about Al-Qaeda seems, at least here, pretty accurate. Everything Abu Osama is saying is about how he wants to destroy the West. He takes great pride in 9/11 and how America is collapsing under its own weight. There is no dinner around the table. Actually, and my wife noticed this first, very few women are in this film. I know that's a cultural thing, but it's also a horrifying cultural thing. The men brag about being able to torture and kill little girls in the movie and it is just commonplace.
Is the world a terrible place? I don't necessarily want film to be reminding me that the world is absolutely horrible. But I think a movie like Of Fathers and Sons need to be out there. Part of it comes from the idea that, if we don't see it, we get comfortable with it. I'm thinking of the many documentaries that are just huge bummers. But as Americans, we tend to get complacent with what is happening. I'm allowed to sit here and type on my computer. I maintain a pretty intense film blog where I talk about the movies I watch daily. Most Americans would look down on me for this, but that doesn't even take into consideration what people overseas would think of me. There's this oddly nice moment in the middle of Of Fathers and Sons where the boys make a makeshift pool. It doesn't look pleasant from my very comfortable perspective, but the boys absolutely adore it. They cannonball and belly flop and the water quickly becomes grey. But this is a reminder. This is one of the few moments of American normality for them. They are shot at by adults and humiliated. They are treated like adults shouldn't be treated. They go through all of this stuff and in this one moment, they are allowed to be kids. The movie constantly reminds you that these are kids and that they should be kids. Kids are wired to be kids, but that can be broken. It's pretty intense.
I want this movie to get attention. I want it to raise questions that should be raised. But I also want to hide under a rock and pretend that we live in a world where people don't hate everyone. How depressing is our planet? This shouldn't be a thing and I don't know what to do about it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.