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Channel 4’s The State: disturbing and accurate reminder of idealism gone wrong

Giles Keyte for Channel 4

Channel 4’s The State: disturbing and accurate reminder of idealism gone wrong

It seems quite unfounded that Channel 4 has had to defend its new four-part drama, The State. The series – written by BAFTA award-winner Peter Kosminsky – follows two British men and two British women who decide to go to Syria and join Islamic State. Encouraged to forget their past lives in the UK in favour of living segregated lives where the men are taught to fight and the woman become their chattels, the series is as compelling and gripping as it is disturbing and discomforting.

It is also the most accurate dramatisation of what life would appear to be like living under the Islamic State to have been produced to date.

Nevertheless, one should be unsurprised that the drama’s subject matter would earmark it for criticism. Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail describes the drama as “pure poison”. While framing criticisms within the context of the Mail’s regular enemies – liberals (Kosminsky), publicly funded broadcasters (Channel 4), and political correctness (the alleged “racism” shown towards the white people joining Islamic State) – three themes emerge that need refuting.

The first is whether the drama accurately represents what life might be like under Islamic State. From what is known from personal testimonies of those who have either returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq or suffered at Islamic State’s hands, the drama would seem to ring true.

This would appear to be reinforced by what is available in the public domain, for instance via social media. Kosminsky claims that he and his production team took around 18 months to research the drama and this clearly shows in the fact that The State is both well informed and well written, the dialogue incorporating a necessary amount of theological and cultural nuance to ensure authenticity.

Super cool boys club? Giles Keyte for Channel 4

The second is that The State glamorises Islamic State. Suggesting that the series presents Islamic State as a “really super cool club”, it is unclear what clubs Stevens frequents if gender segregation is the norm, beheadings are celebrated and brutally violent punishments are everyday occurrences.

There is nothing “really super cool” about the extremely harrowing scene in episode three when the men are shown buying women as slaves having been previously told that it is permissible for them to have sex with girls that have yet to reach puberty. Watching some of the men seek to justify “rape” by deploying their own ideological interpretation is no less an easy watch.

Another example of alleged glamorisation is that the four Britons are shown to be intelligent and informed, the men soft-spoken and the women strong. Why this is so improbable is unclear, but while it would be easier for us to dismiss everyone who decides to travel and join Islamic State as being misguided and misinformed, the reality is that this probably isn’t so.

Somewhat more farcically, the Daily Mail also claims the actors are too good looking. Aside from the fact that very few faces appear on our television screens that do not conform to some norm about beauty and handsomeness, one only has to look to Hollywood and its casting of Tom Cruise as a Nazi in the film Valkyrie or Christioph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds to see The State is far from exceptional in this respect.

Dead man walking. Giles Keyte for Channel 4

Propaganda for whom?

Finally, it is argued that The State is mere propaganda, akin to “a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s”. Far from being propaganda, the drama first and foremost shows how Islamic State uses propaganda to curtail, constrain and control those who decide to join it while also recruiting others to do the same.

One scene is particularly telling here. In episode two, the drama graphically shows the dead bodies of women and children after a missile strike. Rather than presenting Islamic State as victims as the criticism suggests, the scene shows how atrocities are valuable for ideologues who are able to use them for ideological and personal gain without ever showing any real concern for the victims, whoever they might be.

To illustrate this, one might reflect on why the former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson arrived in Westminster with a camera crew shortly after Khalid Masood killed five and injured almost 50 in March this year. The cynic might argue that Robinson’s arrival sought to exploit the heightened situation for ideological purposes rather more than it sought to empathise with those who had been innocent victims.

Normal humans in abnormal situations. Giles Keyte for Channel 4

Of course, film and drama has historically been used for propaganda purposes. While it is easy to cite the 1930s films of the Nazis, both Britain and America have produced films that seek to convey a certain propagandistic message. The hugely popular Rocky IV for instance offers no better illustration of US-centric Cold War propaganda.

Human stories

But The State is far from being Islamic State’s Rocky IV. Instead it is far more similar in message and tone to films such as This is England, Platoon, Hunger and Downfall. Sensitive – albeit at times controversial – these films offer important analyses and insights into the British far-right, the Vietnam War, the IRA and Hitler respectively. Far from being recruiting mechanisms, they instead dramatise the human stories that are integral to a better understanding of the events.

Escape attempt. Giles Keyte for Channel 4

And this is why The State is so important: it reminds us that those who seek to travel and join Islamic State, and endorse and indeed commit horrific atrocities, are real people. While many of us may not be able to see the humanity in the actions or ideological beliefs those real people hold, being reminded of this is no bad thing.

Given that too many of us think that terror and atrocity are the preserve of certain types of people, The State is a timely reminder that it is real people who present us all with the greatest threat and not just certain imagined “Others”.

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