Trial and Terror
A distinguished director explores the lives of ISIS devotees.
For the purposes of drama, the front line between ISIS and Syrian government forces falls in an abandoned cojito, or farmhouse, not far from the village of Tabernas in southern Spain.
It’s a remote location, a couple of hundred yards from a quiet road, as it needs to be. When dressing actors as ISIS fighters with suicide belts or re-creating executions of jumpsuited Kurdish prisoners, it’s best not to attract undue attention.
This is the incendiary setting for The State, a new event series from National Geographic Channel and Britain’s Channel 4, created, written and directed by renowned British auteur Peter Kosminsky, whose 30 years of credits in television and film include the much-lauded Wolf Hall.
His new series, airing September 18 and 19, follows four Britons — two young women and two young men — as they set out to join the so-called caliphate in Raqqa, Syria, in 2015. Though fictional, the story is based on extensive research.
“We have a source for everything that is depicted on screen,” Kosminsky says, as he prepares to direct a scene in which Jalal (Sam Otto) and his best friend, Ziyad (Ryan McKen), experience life on the front for the first time.
This is bold, provocative television. As seen in The State, under ISIS rule, women’s rights and men’s heads are treated with similar disdain.
“The hardest part of the job,” Kosminsky says, “was to invest in characters who are doing something that is to me anathema. There’s no good side to what these people do — I’m not trying to suggest for a moment there is. And yet, to make a drama work, it’s necessary to make characters real, not just two-dimensional baddies or people who are insane.”
As such he created four characters — Jalal, Ziyad, single mother Shakira (Ony Uhiara) and teenage devotee Ushna (Shavani Seth) — already radicalized as the story begins and on their way to join the State.
As they experience the realities of life in Raqqa, including atrocities carried out by the regime and the aftermath of airstrikes, they find their journeys diverging. Some become more committed to the caliphate, others become disillusioned and desperate. The skill of the dramatist is in keeping viewers guessing who will go which way.
“This show is a real testament to the power of drama,” says Beth Willis, Channel 4’s head of drama, who commissioned The State.
“At no point does the drama sympathize [with terrorists]. But by creating characters who are recognizably human — they have pasts and families and emotions — it offers the viewer a foothold of understanding in a subject that is so complex and is often presented in a simplistic way or through [ISIS] propaganda.”
That propaganda includes the infamous ISIS beheading videos. Kosminsky and his team decided straight away that using the real footage would be insensitive to the victims and their families, but with the videos being such a key part of ISIS iconography, they couldn’t be ignored. As such, for The State, beheading videos were recreated, shot for shot.
On this day on set, producer Steve Clark-Hall (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) is left with this unenviable task, secluded in the Spanish desert, filming the unthinkable.
“This is very, very open to misunderstanding,” he says, correcting camera angles while checking in with the extra in the orange jumpsuit on his knees and the actor in the black facemask. (The beheadings themselves are not shown.)
Back at the farmhouse, Kosminsky is ushering in Otto, McKen and their team of jihadis. Production designer Pat Campbell points out a notch beneath the window sill, which the fighters can use to position their guns without raising their heads into view of the enemy. The costumed actors appear only at the last minute.
“On location, we are kept hidden as much as possible,” says Otto, AK-47 in hand, wrapped in ammunition, headscarf and head-to-toe black. “But it’s pretty awful to consider what people might think if they saw us with no context of what we are doing.
“It’s very unnerving, wearing this outfit that has such stigma attached to it,” he continues.
“When I had my first fitting, everyone in the room went quiet. It feels like a barrier to the world, and in a terrible way, has a dark power about it. It’s designed to make young, powerless men feel powerful, and I had a sense of that when wearing it.”
When the shot is done, suicide belts are packed away and the actors go back to their hotel. The crew has kept a low profile in Almería, the Spanish southern province that has provided film locations to such film classics as Lawrence of Arabia and Exodus.
“This show will largely be misunderstood,” Clark-Hall says, “because a lot of the provocation will come before people have seen it. They’ll get the wrong end of the stick. Almost certainly they’ll say he [Kosminsky] is humanizing ISIS; the Islamic world will say he’s being offensive to Muslims. Everyone will be incredibly offended, long before it starts.
"But that’s one of the things about Kosminsky: he’s challenging in all sorts of ways.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017