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Halfway through Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki’s sophomore documentary Of Fathers and Sons — which won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance — a moment occurs when the young sons of a radical Salafi jihadist capture a small wounded bird and behead it (thankfully off-screen). Gleefully, they declare: “We put his head down and cut it off, like how you did it, father, to that man.” Chilling in its casual delivery, and even more unsettling for the almost approving way it was received, this sort of statement is just one of the many instances scattered throughout the film which demonstrate how portraying the normalisation of hate and violence need not necessitate the use of high drama and spectacle.
Derki, who went undercover for two and a half years as a pro-jihadist photojournalist, lived on the frontlines of the Syrian civil war and documented the psychological evolution of sons growing up under the oppressive ideology of their fanatic father, Abu Osama. In one interview, Derki speaks of “the masculine power of fathers in [these societies]” as a “dictatorship” and this is precisely how he renders familial relations in the film. Women and girls are mostly absent, to be called for and dismissed shortly after, while boys and younger men orbit around the attention of the patriarch, whose volatile expressions of alternating love and anger determine their self-worth. We witness Abu Osama go into a fit of rage about infidels in the same breath as he tenderly coddles his younger son; the contrast between such outbursts against more domestic, almost heart-warming scenes yields a perturbing degree of emotional whiplash.
The depth to which the poisonous language of extremism can seep into a young mind comes up in myriad other ways throughout the film. In one scene, a group of boys cheerfully embed an explosive device into a plastic bottle, and kick it around in a makeshift game of soccer. We watch with a rising sense of alarm and tension as each boy takes turns kicking it, daring the others to trigger the explosion. While the bottle does blow up later — after the boys are at a safe distance — the reassurance of their survival is subverted by the realization that they would have welcomed death willingly, a mindset that their fathers have indelibly inculcated in them.
Centered on a grieving father’s search for the truth of his son’s suspicious death, the entry point for radicalization comes much later in Tunisian filmmaker Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s Fatwa, which explores the psyche of a fictional, privileged young man who became involved with an extremist Islamic organization. Brahim (Ahmed Hafiane) is a long-term resident of France who returns to Tunis after receiving news of the death of his son Marouane in a supposed motorcycling accident. Suspicious of this explanation, he reaches out to his estranged ex-wife Loubna (Ghalia Benali) whose atheism and recently published book denouncing the violent rhetorics of local extremists have resulted in a fatwa — a non-binding ruling given by a qualified Islamic legal scholar — being declared against her, and whose fervent disagreements with the increasingly radicalized Marouane seem to have precipitated his death.
Tracing his son’s path through the city after Loubna kicked him out, Brahim turns to old friends and familiar places to piece together an increasingly disquieting discovery of his son’s conversion to a particularly strident variety of religious conservatism and how it manifested in his life. A terse conversation with Marouane’s former love interest — whose complaint led to his dismissal from art school — reveals increasingly violent tendencies and Marouane’s attempts to police her body. A stakeout at a cybercafe his son used to frequent unearths video clips of his participation in frenzied rallies, and a later conversation with the guilt-ridden Loubna reveals that the sect their son was involved in was the one who issued the fatwa on her, leading to her kicking him out of her home.
Brahim’s inquiries take on a gradually more sinister tone as he uncovers more discomforting truths of not just his son’s recent history, but also the changing face of a society that is no longer recognizable to him. Eventually, it is Brahim’s kindness towards the abused wife of a neighbor which helps him discover the true extent of Marouane’s unwilling involvement in the sect, and sheds light on the deep but conflicted love that his son had for both him and Loubna.
Following the familiar pattern of a classic “whodunit,” Fatwa articulates the complex social issues that contribute to radicalization in a manner that is rather bleak: a cloistered culture of toxic masculinity that produces an echo chamber of violent ideas; the desire to control women and their bodies in the guise of spiritual righteousness; and the opportunism of agitators who see an opening to preach hate and gain power in a society still reeling from the effects of political upheaval.
Both screening as part of the Contemporary Arab Cinema film series at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fatwa and Of Fathers and Sons also illustrate how differently polarized notions of masculinities — the passivity of a liberal Muslim man versus the aggression of a conservative zealot — can still fail young boys looking for role models to aspire to. Though I generally sympathized with the more liberal Brahim, it was striking to note that it was Abu Osama who seemed to enjoy the genuine devotion of his brood, and in whose hateful, passionate love I found disturbing parallels to the dynamics of other, much more conventional families, faraway from the strife and the gun-smoke of a self-made war zone.
Perhaps, what it takes to break the seductive, toxic logic of domination is to have an open invitation to have the freedom to learn and embrace the vast possibilities and nuances of masculinity, and to set for oneself a rich and complex definition of manhood.
Of Fathers and Sons screens tonight at 7 pm at BAM (30 Lafayette Ave, Brooklyn), as part of “Contemporary Arab Cinema.” The series runs through October 2nd and also included Fatwa. The series was curated by Lina Matta.