A cautionary tale
Bafta-winning writer and director Peter Kosminsky joins the cast of his latest miniseries, The State, to discuss the show, which tells the story of four Britons who leave their UK lives behind to join so-called Islamic State in Syria.
When HBO revealed that the next project from Game of Thrones showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff would be an alternative-history drama about slavery continuing into the modern US, the backlash was swift.
While July’s announcement of Confederate came at a time of heightened political and racial tensions in the country, events in Charlottesville and their aftermath in the past week have taken the situation to boiling point, forcing the US premium cable network to defend its plans for the show, describing accusations of irresponsibility as “simply undeserved.”
From the outset, one of the chief concerns about the series was how a story in which the South successfully seceded during the Civil War would be dealt with by two white writers. The presence of fellow writers and executive producers Nichelle Tramble and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, has allowed Weiss and Benioff to assure commentators it would not be a series centred on whips and plantations.
But it boils down to the question of whether somebody can, or should, tell the story of a race or culture they are not themselves a part of. That same question was posed to Peter Kosminsky, the Bafta-winning director of Wolf Hall, when he was asked why the story of four non-white British Muslims who join Islamic State (IS) was one he – a white filmmaker – felt qualified to tell.
Responding at a screening of the drama, four-part miniseries The State, he described himself as a generalist who moves from subject to subject while briefly becoming an expert on each one.
“Prior to doing this, I became moderately expert on Henry VIII [for Wolf Hall] and what was going on in Tudor England,” he explained. “Prior to that, it was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [for The Promise]. I believe there’s room for a whole choir of different voices on these issues and, for better or for worse, I’m lucky enough to have access to the airwaves.
“Television is a very serious matter; it’s fine that some of it’s escapist, but primarily it’s a powerful tool and we should use it responsibly. If the only people who could make these kinds of shows were people who were themselves immersed in the story, first of all it’s hard to bring objectivity, and what do they do next? So there is a role still in programmes that are rooted in reality and research for the generalist. I’m not saying it’s the only way to make these programmes, but I do think it’s a legitimate way.”
Produced by Archery Pictures and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution, The State follows best friends Jalal and Ziyad, student Ushna and mother and nurse Shakira (with her nine-year-old son Isaac in tow) who have left their UK lives behind to join IS in Raqqah, Syria.
Initially exuberant at what awaits them in the caliphate, their journeys soon diverge as their motivations for joining clash with the reality of day-to-day life.
Describing his own motivation for making a drama that has already courted controversy, Kosminsky says he saw a space for a series that starts on the border and uncovers what happens to Britons when they join IS. For 18 months, he worked with a research team to find real-life testimonies on the conditions in Syria, and two years after he first began work, the series is due to premiere on Channel 4 this Sunday. It will air in the US on National Geographic in September.
Kosminksy admits it is an uncomfortable watch, as his intentions were to humanise the characters to ensure The State acts as a “cautionary tale.”
“I don’t think we do any service to the people who have suffered at the hands of IS to pretend the people who go over there are all clinically insane,” he says. “It’s easy and comfortable to think that, but unfortunately it’s not true. They seem to come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all different levels of academic attainment. The one common factor seems to be a shallowness of their connection to their faith.
“These people are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who have only been born again relatively recently. From the research, it seems the deeper your faith, knowledge and understanding of Islam, the less likely you are to travel. So the first thing was to make characters who are real, faithful to the research and didn’t allow us the easy out of thinking these people are all mad. The second thing – I’ll be quite open about it – is this is meant to be a cautionary tale. The main characters’ attitudes change. I didn’t think it would act as a cautionary tale if you couldn’t associate with the characters.”
As such, Kosminsky is acutely aware of why Muslims might be upset with the show, and admits that concerns over Islamophobia were at the forefront of his mind during the production process.
“A dramatist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society and, given the fact thousands of Brits decided to go over there [to Syria] and now that issue is spilling back onto our streets in London and Manchester and in some European cities and capitals, I think this is an issue we need to address,” he says.
Breaking down the first episode, Kosminsky says it leans on research that suggests one of the driving factors behind people going to Syria is a sense of exclusion at home and the promise of brotherhood and sisterhood when they arrive.
“Episode one ends with almost a sense of euphoria among a band of brothers and sisters,” Kosminsky says. “It’s misplaced with a sense of purity, of having found a safe place. If we hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have faithfully reflected the research. The next three episodes are spent unpicking that view and I think you see at the end that it isn’t the main characters’ faith that departs, it’s their belief in the caliphate that departs – and that’s the key part. If this film in some ways suggested the characters rejected their faith as a result of rejecting Islamic State, that would be not realistic and would be quite destructive.”
The main cast members – Shavani Cameron (Ushna), Sam Otto (Jalal), Ony Uhiara (Shakira) and Ryan McKen (Ziyad) – admit to feeling a sense of responsibility when they took on their roles.
Otto, whose character heads to Syria in the footsteps of his brother who was killed in combat, says it was important to understand where these people are coming from. “It was a real challenge to get into the mind of somebody who’s decided to up ship and go to Syria,” he says, adding that he spoke to a cab driver who knew people who had joined IS. “He said these people don’t have a deep understanding of their faith. The pious guys wouldn’t go. That was an interesting thing for me to think about.
“This is the most sensitive issue of our time. When I found out I had this part, there was a sense of doing it justice and doing it right because I’m representing groups of people in this really sensitive subject. For Jalal, it’s about duty and honour, which is what some of these guys actually feel.”
The mix of characters was also identified through the show’s research. Kosminsky says certain character types emerged, including siblings of people who had already been to Syria (Jalal), young girls radicalised on the internet (Ushna) and those with skills to offer (nurse Shakira).
Subsequently, Uhiara has several scenes set inside a hospital, and she admits learning lines in Arabic was tough. “It was a fun, difficult challenge,” she says of the series, which was filmed in Spain. “I approached it like learning a song. We broke it down phonetically and, once you get to grasps with the pronunciations of the language, you can move on to find ways to pinpoint what word means what so when you’re playing the scene, you can hear those. Most of my scenes in Arabic were with natural Arabic speakers so it was pressured sometimes and there was a lot of tension. But I love languages so it was a good additional aspect of the job.”
Beth Willis, head of drama at Channel 4, praises Kosminsky for his “passion, dogged determination, his forensic eye for factual detail, coupled with a deep understanding of humanity and of drama.” In fact, she says The State surpasses his previous “jaw-dropping” work.
“This show has reminded me of the power and the importance of drama – to be able to get to those places factual programming sometimes just can’t reach,” Willis adds. “By inviting you to experience this world with these characters from their point of view, we’re offered an insight that goes well beyond the headlines. This is everything a Channel 4 drama should be – bold, thoughtful, compelling and important.”