Leaving the United Kingdom halfway through the four-night screening of the television drama “The State” ironically put me in an ideal place to comment on award-winning writer-director Peter Kosminsky’s controversial Islamic State (ISIS) series. Then I watched the rest.
I can legitimately be ambiguous about the good or evil that will come of it but I am no longer half-convinced of this programme’s merit as a great explainer of radicalisation or as a powerful propaganda tool for ISIS.
It will work — for ISIS.
The only thing in its favour is the sympathetic characters it creates among the four young British recruits to ISIS. That should hardly be a surprise, for ISIS supporters come from among us and from within our communities. It can only be good Kosminsky departs from the Hollywood paranoia genre, which portrays Muslims, Arabs and swarthy foreigners in general as cartoon cut-out bad guys speaking Arabic, wearing the kaffiyeh, and wielding guns or knives.
Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” which is set in Iraq, depicted the locals as a swarming, threatening mass. So did “13 Hours,” which told the story of the September 11, 2012, attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
But has “The State” gone too far the other way? Should Kosminsky have humanised those who enable a perverted ideology that glorifies terrorist attacks, beheadings, public beatings, child soldiers, slavery and the subjugation of women? He never challenged ISIS ideology, only the imperfect implementation of it.
A successful drama needs to portray, as a German proverb about the nature of tragedy put it, two rights in conflict, not a right and a wrong. This dramatisation showed the ISIS ideology as right but its execution as occasionally wrong.
The charge of “apologist” is being hurled at Kosminsky, as well it might. Some say he expertly touched up the brutal tragedy of an extremist group’s death cult and made it camera-worthy. On screen, the so-called “Islamic state” run by ISIS metamorphoses from an ugly, fearsome place to a lamp-lit, soft-focus set where the men are strong and the women (mostly) compliant. Isn’t that exactly what one might expect from a well-shot Hollywoodised television drama, especially one that bears the stamp of an admired director?
So, should it have been made at all? That is not the right question. Should it have been made now? Even those who value freedom of creative expression above all else might wonder if “The State,” which will have its international release on National Geographic in September, is too much too soon. Is it too close to the organic lived reality of life in the second decade of the 21st century to be on our television screens, too?
Consider the number of terrorist incidents either claimed by or inspired by ISIS in different European cities in the days immediately before the series was screened: Barcelona, Cambrils, Turku. A van attack in Marseille was briefly thought to be similarly ISIS-inspired but terrorism was later rejected as a motive. Given the grim regularity and bloody frequency of incidents straight from the ISIS playbook, Kosminsky’s series closes aesthetic distance or the gap between viewers’ conscious reality and the fictional reality far too easily.
It could hardly be otherwise. We are still in the moment, fighting ISIS, its physical presence and its grotesque ideological footprint. Any dramatisation of the real ongoing drama — with its death and destruction — is everyone’s personal story. In the ISIS narrative, as of 2017, it is not possible to do what acclaimed US playwright J.T. Rogers recently described as a key requirement of a successful piece of theatre: To “maniacally, ruthlessly not allow any of the present into the story.”
Rogers knows what he’s talking about. His plays are about loaded events in world affairs, not least the 1980s war in Afghanistan and the Rwandan genocide. He is sometimes called America’s only foreign policy playwright. His latest play, “Oslo,” deals with the brief period in 1993 when Middle East peace seemed to be within reach. It has become this year’s unlikely Broadway hit, won the Tony Award and is soon to be made into a movie. Rogers says his portfolio is of “history plays… you are talking about your own time by talking about another time… art like life needs a distance.”
It is the lack of distance — in time — that makes Kosminsky’s dramatisation of ISIS particularly troubling. Right now.