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Arts & Life

'The State' Explores Life Inside ISIS


A four-part series is about to debut on National Geographic in the United States with characters set in an unlovely landscape of bombings, beatings and beheadings. It's a fictional story based on fact of four young Britons who leave home to join ISIS, the Islamic State.


SAM OTTO: (As Jalal Hossein) Allah, we left our homes and our friends to fight for your sake. We've been called names, cast out, hunted like food. Choose us, Ya Allah. Choose us to be in the heart of the green bird in Jannah tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Takbir.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Allahu akbar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Takbir.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Allahu akbar.

SIMON: Jalal tries to follow the path of his older brother, who's a martyr or a traitor. Shakira, a young British doctor, brings along her 9-year-old son. "The State" is a production of Britain's Channel 4, and it's written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, who's won many awards for directing "Wolf Hall" and series and films. He joins us from Great Britain. Mr. Kosminsky, thanks so much for being with us.

PETER KOSMINSKY: Thank you, Scott. Good to talk to you.

SIMON: Anybody who takes on this material must be asking for trouble one way or another.

KOSMINSKY: Yes. It's a weird choice, really, isn't it? The problem is that television is. Even in this multi-channel era, still such a powerful medium for speaking to large groups of people simultaneously. And I do think it's the job of television drama to try to hold a mirror up to society of some kind. And that means engaging with some of the more difficult issues. And goodness only knows we are facing difficult issues in the world at the moment, aren't we?

SIMON: Shakira, the doctor, beautifully played by Ony Uhiara, wants to go on being a doctor in the caliphate, but she's told, nope, that's up to your husband. You got to marry first. And she says at one point, I gave up everything for this. Why does she want to be a part of ISIS?

KOSMINSKY: You know, well, that's the $65,000 question, isn't it? And, you know, even at the end of such a long research and production process - we've been working on this for the best part of three years - I'm not sure I can clearly answer it. What the drama set out to interrogate was, how does a conviction to join something - I mean, let's not mince words, a blood-drenched death cult - how does the conviction that you want to go and join this place which they'd never experienced, survive the encounter with the place? And that's really what the drama attempts to do.

SIMON: What we see in one scene after another, really, in this landscape - routine torture and beheadings and brutality, rape of Yazidi women who are enslaved, a child soccer game with a human head. Did you, as the writer and director, worry that the state of "The State" is sometimes just too grim for people to watch?

KOSMINSKY: Absolutely. And, you know, that was one of the central dilemmas that we faced as broadcasters and also I faced as a writer and director. On the one hand, if I depicted all the things I read about and unfortunately had to watch on video in preparation for this program, if I depicted them faithfully, it would be unwatchable. But if I soft-pedaled it, if I pulled back too much, first of all, it wouldn't be in any sense a realistic depiction of what we all know to be one of the most violent regimes of modern times.

And secondly, one of the main drivers for the disillusionment of our main characters - in particular, the main male character, Jalal - would have been lost, so trying somehow to strike a balance between making the thing literally unwatchable and making it a whitewash for what is obviously a blood-drenched death cult.

SIMON: I guess I do keep returning to this theme in questions, but the - Shakira, the doctor, is - regardless of some of the terrible things that happened to her, she's particularly horrified when her 9-year-old son becomes a kind of rifle-bearing ISIS cadet. And I must say, watching, there was a part of me that wanted to say, well, what did you think? You joined the Islamic State, and your son would go to a school in which you'd, you know, sing "Michael Rows The Boat Ashore"?

KOSMINSKY: One of the things we looked at really carefully was trying to find a pattern amongst those who chose to travel to the Islamic State in that period, 2014, 2015 and just sort of nipping into 2016. Just about the only common pattern that academics have been able to find is that it the attachment of those who travel to their faith, Islam, is shallow, by which I mean that they were either recent converts to Islam from another faith or no faith or they were what you might call born again. And that was people who'd been born Muslim, hadn't really taken much interest in their faith and only come to be interested in the last year or two before travelling.

Now, if it isn't about religion, one has to ask ourselves what it's about. And for me, it's about a kind of nihilism. They talk about achieving a sense of purity. Most of them were not going because of the violence. And yet, when they got there, they were confronted with the reality of the violence. They were there for other, it must be said, misguided reasons. And it was when the daily reality of the brutality and cruelty and inconsistency of the society was brought to their attention that they started to lose commitment.

SIMON: What do you hope Americans who watch this take away?

KOSMINSKY: Well, I suppose I have two hopes. I mean, luckily, not a huge amount of this has yet impinged on American soil, although, of course, you've had appalling terrorist outrages on American soil. But we've had a lot of it here in Europe. And, of course, it's a natural human reaction to think about the people who perpetrate these kind of atrocities and just think, well, they must be criminally insane. They can't be like us.

And then you get these sort of confusing interviews with neighbors of the people who turn out to be the perpetrators or family, say, with a look of confusion on their face. They say, he was actually really nice. He was nice to my kids. The uncomfortable reality in the research makes this unfortunately very clear that although these people are doing monstrous things, they aren't necessarily monsters.

And if we're ever to hope to combat it, we have to at least try to understand it. In my experience, at least in my lifetime, with any dispute, eventually, it's necessary, however unpalatable it may be, to sit down opposite people we disagree with and may equally despise in an attempt to try to come to some kind of resolution. And I suppose the objective of this drama was, in a very small way, one tiny contribution to try to begin to help that sense of understanding.

SIMON: Peter Kosminsky, writer and director of "The State," which will air on National Geographic this month. Thank you so much for being with us.

KOSMINSKY: Thank you, Scott. I've enjoyed the conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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