The Current

Director who lived undercover with jihadists calls it 'most dangerous thing I did in my life'

Living undercover with a jihadist and his family in Syria, filmmaker Talal Derki captured a rare glimpse of how hatred and extremism are passed from generation to generation. He tells us about the danger he faced making his Oscar-nominated film, Of Fathers and Sons.

Talal Derki’s documentary ‘Of Fathers and Sons’ has been nominated for an Oscar

Syrian-German filmmaker Talal Derki risked his life to document how one jihadist father passed extremism on to his sons in northern Syria. (VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)
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A Syrian-German filmmaker who went undercover to make a documentary about Islamic extremism calls it "the most dangerous thing" he's done in his life.

Talal Derki's film Of Fathers and Sons follows the lives of al-Nusra Front jihadist Abu Osama and his six sons in Idlib province in northern Syria. The Oscar-nominated film gives viewers a rare glimpse into how extremism and hatred are passed down from generation to generation.

But in order to gain Osama's trust and get access to his world, Derki — who identifies as a moderate, liberal Muslim — posed as an extremist sympathizer. He spent two and a half years living with the jihadist and his family, documenting their life.

Derki spoke with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about his film, and the dangers he faced bringing it to life. Here is part of their conversation.

First of all, I want to ask about Abu Osama. How did you find him?

Actually, I found the kids first through many [cameramen] I work with in the ground, and one found them … in Shariah camp ... Then I know someone from my previous film, like a guy who [became] a [leader] in al-Nusra Front. So he helped me. He knows the father. They are … old friends. They were in prison together before, and now they both are, like, working for the same purpose.

You spent a lot of time talking to Abu Osama, the dad. What was he hoping for in Syria? What did he want to happen with this war?

He [didn't] care about Syria actually. For him … all the lands should be the land of Islam under the black flag of the caliphate. It should be one caliphate, it should be all around the world, and this is his mission — that he can travel from Syria to Japan without using [a] passport, like ISIS was dreaming, as al-Qaeda is dreaming, al-Nusra and all those jihadist groups. So their names are not important actually. They … have the same goal.

An ISIS fighter holds the group's flag in the city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014. (Reuters)

We see him knocking TNT out of an unexploded ordnance, which of course is very dangerous.

Following his step is the most dangerous thing I did in my life. You even follow him … in the area where it's full with mines and explosives.

Many people will want to kill him and you … walk one metre away from him. Second most dangerous thing [is] that they will figure out about my purpose, about my background … it can cost me my life and they will kill me easily, like, just because I am not like them.

I was an actor for two and a half years, without any possibility to make any mistake ... it [would] cost me my head.- Talal Derki

I want to ask you more about the danger then. Obviously if they had found out about you, you could be killed. And so every time you go back in, you don't know what they know.

This is why I used to speak with the main character and some others around him very often — just to witness this from the voice. If something went wrong [and they found out the truth], then, like, in the long conversation you can notice that.

It had to be very stressful for you.

It's very stressful ... I was an actor for two and a half years, without any possibility to make any mistake — a mistake in playing this role, it [would] cost me my head.

I have to play this role even when I am in Germany, back to my real life. Sometimes some people, being in a party, drinking alcohol, someone makes photos. And then you have to jump to him and ask him to delete this photo.

At one point we see him [Osama] in basically a sniper nest and he shoots someone. And he sees somebody come to help that person, and he's calling for another gun because he wants to shoot the guy dead before anybody can get to him. And you're there. Obviously your photographer is rolling on this. You're witnessing it. What is it like to watch that?

This is the most [treasured] interview you can see in non-fiction films: your character speaking from deep in [the] heart about his son, and then at the same time, he was like, with his eye on his sniper, and he shoots someone in the other side of the front line. So he killed someone, he killed another father, while he's talking about how much he loves his son. This is the paradox.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Produced by John Chipman. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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