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‘The State’ director provides antidote to Daesh stereotype

British lmmaker Peter Kosminsky prepares to lm on the set of ‘The State.’ (Photo courtesy of Channel 4)
British film maker Peter Kosminsky, who directorial credits include “The Promise” and “Wolf Hall” talks about his latest work “The State” — which explores the motives of four British extremists who set off to fight for Daesh.

Q: Do you think dramatizing Daesh could help deter young people from joining the terrorist group?
A:
I hope so, it was not the primary purpose of doing it but of course, I think if you watch the full four episodes of “The State” there is no doubt it is some kind of cautionary tale. You see people travel there with an initial feeling of enthusiasm but as the story goes on, the disillusionment of the two main characters becomes profound. The main purpose was trying to act as an antidote to simplistic thought and try to have more of a sophisticated analysis of the nature of people who travel there.

Q: You chose the title “The State” rather than “Dawlah” or “Islamic State.” Why?
A:
It is intentionally told from the point of view of the Brits who go out there, so you see what they see. We are excited at the end of episode one because they are excited, and we become depressed and disillusioned as the episode goes on because they become depressed and disillusioned. Because the story is told from their point of view, I thought it would be good to call it “The State”.

Q: Unlike the satirical comedy “Four Lions”, your film presents a very human side of the British fighters and they appear normal. Why?
A:
You put your finger on it. The actions themselves are appalling, disgusting, outrageous, monstrous — of course we are tempted to think of the people who perpetrate them as monstrous. But then you have these inconvenient interviews with neighbors who knew the perpetrators and had no idea what they were planning and they say these inconvenient things like “he was nice to my children”. The inconvenient truth is that these people are not monsters although often the things they do are monstrous — so what I was trying to do was create a more humane depiction of fictional characters but based on people we found in the research.

Q: “The State” opens with the life of the extremists after they arrive in Syria. Why did you not choose to show their motives — even in flashback format so we know the reasons behind their radicalization?
A:
I felt that there was nothing new or surprising in the radicalization process based on the research I had. I already made a whole drama called ‘Britz’ about precisely that — the radicalization of a young second generation British Muslim. I did not want to retread that path and also I was concerned that I would spend the whole episode getting the three characters to the border and not showing anything at all surprising or revelatory and possibly lose some of the audience along the way. I am just one writer-director who wants to make one particular story and the story I want it to tell was a very specific one. To take the determination and the certainty that have formed in the minds of these young men and women outside the Islamic State and see how that certainty and determination survived when confronted with the daily reality.

Q: The Middle East has been a recurring setting in your dramas. Why are you so interested in the region?
A:
There seems to be a synergy there that deals in one way or another with the Iraq war and the consequences of the Iraq war — the experience of life for second generation British Muslims over a ten or more year period. “The Promise” was a very personal film for me about the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the conflict between Palestinians and Israel. My drama is very interested in the position of the underdog and in racism in all its manifestations. In different ways, those two themes are represented in all four films we are talking about. In the case of the three British films, I am really focusing on the experience of the British Muslims — rightly or wrongly I see them as underdogs in British society, and on the receiving end of appalling racism both on the individual and on the state level.

Q: What did your research of “The State” entail?
A:
We take some aspects from some characters and some aspects from other characters, then there is also an element of fictionalization as well, but the incidents that happened to the characters are all real, I have not really made up any events — these are all things we found in our research. The character of Jalal was drawn from a number of different characters which are found in the research and also some completely fictional elements as well.

Q: Unlike “The Promise”, in “The State” you relied heavily on Arabic dialogue, why?
A:
It may surprise you but the approach was identical with the “The Promise”. I always tell my story from the point of view of a central character or three or four central characters. I try not to see anything that those characters do not see. In the same way I try not to let the audience understand what the central character can’t understand.

Q: You often convey a human bond as a sub-theme between characters who are doomed to be enemies. Does this contribute to the moral conflict of the main characters?
A:
Whenever I do this kind of drama I try to the best of my limited ability, and always from the point of view of the British visitor, to characterize the people who are directly caught up in the struggle. It is an attempt to not simply confine the experience to the bunch of Brits but to develop the perspective we can see more of the people who are directly caught up in this catastrophe.

Q: You have been criticized for some of your work because you are a white middle class man. But does this allow you a neutral perspective in the themes you are tackling?
A:
You can argue it both ways, and I am not saying that is not a legitimate point, it is! I am not stopping anyone else making a film about the subject, as far as I know nobody has. I have access to the airwaves for a short time, till people lose interest in me. The question is what use I make of that access. Do I use that access to make films about car chases or true crime or do I, with my shortcomings and flaws, encourage the British audience to engage with serious subjects which are affecting our planet at the moment?

Q: What is the next project for Peter Kosminsky and will the Middle East be featured again?
A:
I am taking a long holiday because the film about the Islamic State was quite an emotionally draining experience and I have not had a holiday for two and a half years. When I get back I will try to work out what to do next. It will not be about the Middle East but this is not necessarily to say I will not be returning to that subject in the future. I and others will continue to be attracted to the Middle East. But for me I wish for peace in the Middle East, for a fair settlement for the Palestinians, and for the reasons why I and other filmmakers like me from the West that might be drawn to make films about the Middle East, to quietly disappear.

"The State" is now available to watch on the National Geographic Channel.

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