“I’m ashamed of him, but he’s still my son,” says Sally Evans in My Son the Jihadi. They’re dire words for any parent to utter but she has more reason than most.
Her son Thomas grew up in High Wycombe. In family photos he looks like a regular, floppy-haired teenager. Then aged 19, he joined a new gym, met new friends and converted to Islam. He was subsequently radicalised, and told his parents he was going to Egypt to learn Arabic. In fact, he travelled to Somalia and joined terrorist militia Al Shabaab.
Peter Beard’s unbearably sad documentary tells the story as a series of emotional blows – blows that keep landing on Sally while the film unfolds.
As a portrait of what radical Islam can drive people to (we see evidence of Al Shabaab massacres) it’s powerful and harrowing. But at heart, it’s a plain, human story of a parent grieving for a lost child.
In one scene Sally wrestles with her feelings as she thinks of the danger Thomas is in: “If he died… in one way, I suppose – forgive me – it would be easier. Because then I’d know that he couldn’t hurt anybody else. But no, it wouldn’t be easier because my son would have gone. But then,” she concludes, “I guess my son has gone anyway.”
Britons going abroad to fight for Islamist groups is not a new story. In a perfect world, it should make no difference to the film’s impact that Thomas happens to come from a white, middle-class family. But rightly or wrongly, that makes it feel more shocking, more stark, more of a betrayal.
Sally learns that while abroad Thomas has got married – to a 14-year-old Somali woman. (She learns more and worse as the programme goes on.) In one scene she speaks by telephone to her new daughter-in-law’s mother, who now lives in Sweden, and Sally confides, “We’re heartbroken by our children and their choices.”
Which in the end is what the film is about – or how many parents watching are bound to see it. It doesn’t make for easy viewing but it’s an extraordinary piece of television – an ugly story, beautifully told.
My Son The Jihadi airs on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm