At a time when atrocities and attacks seem to be happening at an alarmingly frequent rate, who hasn’t asked themselves how people could do such a thing? When it comes to the British people who sign up to join ISIS and leave their families for Syria, though, the questions are even tougher. Peter Kosminsky’s new drama, The State, dares to answer them.
The four-part series follows four young men and women who decide to leave their lives behind to join a fight on the side that they think is right. We begin with them waking up and preparing to depart, which, broadcast in August, is unnervingly like watching our own preparations for a summer vacation. But a holiday camp this ain’t, and that slowly dawns on our quartet.
There’s Shakira (Ony Uhiara), who travels with her son, Isaac, and looks forward to working as a junior doctor in aid of The State. When she arrives, though, it becomes clear that she isn’t permitted to work in the hospitals, not without the approval of a husband and certainly not uncovered and unmasked – no matter what the hygiene concerns. And there’s Jalal (Sam Otto), who wants to be a soldier, but finds himself dealing with both the uncomfortable prospect of The State’s barbaric violence and the burden of having an older brother who previously joined, but has since been martyred for the cause.
Peter Kosminsky has always been skilled at dissecting and confronting complex issues, from the Isreal-Palestine conflict in The Promise to directing the winding political machinations of Hilary Mantel, adapted for the screen in BBC One’s Wolf Hall. If the latter was notable for its use of natural light and darkness, The State is even darker and more natural, as it uses extensive research to base its fictional stories upon. The little details are what add up to something challenging and truly eye-opening, as we hear teenager Ushna (Shavani Seth), who has been recruited online, talk about being a “lioness among the lions”, only to discover that what was painted as a united sisterhood of ISIS women is more like a closed group that cuts off liberties and requires every single one to get married.
That’s contrasted with a growing sense of conviction among some, but that balance makes sure that the drama never glorifies or justifies terrorism – rather, it does something far more daring: it humanises them. After a warm, welcoming sense of unity and even comfort in the Raqqah camp, despair and disappointment become as tangible as belief and purpose, and the uniformly excellent cast bring each thorny web of emotions into our living rooms. Kosminsky, who writes as well as directs, flashes up key words in English and Arabic when spoken, which encapsulates the delicate duality of his efforts: on the one hand, drawing us in to understand, and on the other, reinforcing the alien, outsider feeling of those who realise they’ve made a mistake in joining the ranks. The reason for the death of Jalal’s brother becomes a poignant touchstone for that difficult journey, one of many elements that are handled with sensitivity and nuance. Even more chilling, meanwhile, is the performance of Jessica Gunning as a white American who has long since switched sides and seems all too happy managing the new recruits. A gripping and disturbing watch, The State asks questions that will be too close to home for some – particularly when yet more tragic headlines are so recent in the memory – but that makes it all the important to engage with the answers, and keep on asking.
All four parts of The State are available as a box to watch online and download for free on All 4 until 22nd September 2017.