National Geographic may not have a lengthy track record in producing drama but The State, which follows on from Genius earlier this year, makes it 2 out of 2. After events in Europe this week I suspect they will need to hold their nerve in screening this 4 part miniseries from writer / director Peter Kosminsky (Wolf Hall).
Set in 2015 The State embeds us deep in the inner sanctum of Islamic State, bringing insight into how it operates and, more importantly, why people blindly follow its doctrine to the point of terrorism and martyrdom.
There are 4 central characters in this powerful saga, all of whom leave their homes in Britain and travel to Turkey, then on to Raqqah, in Syria. Reaching ISIS facilitators at the border is done under darkness of night. As a point of no return, phones are seized, laptops have to be factory reset and all talk of past history is shut down.
Single mother Shakira (Ony Uhiara) travels with her nine-year-old son, Isaac, determined to bring her skills as a junior doctor to the aid of the Caliphate. She takes an oath of allegiance, must wear a burqa in the company of men, cannot travel unaccompanied and is told by a woman with an American accent her future will be much brighter as soon as she finds a husband (through an arranged marriage, of course). While she believes in the Muslim faith and all that Allah provides, she struggles to equate her modern British values with the demands of her new life.
Jalal (Sam Otto) has persuaded his best friend, Ziyaad (Ryan McKen) to accompany him to Syria where he burns his passport, begins rigorous training in weapons, target practice and the fundamentals of martyrdom. Joining other young men, including from the UK & Germany they are educated in the ISIS vision that defeat by the West will bring them sooner to Allah. “We want them to send their armies. We want them to defeat us,” says one soldier, “Our path has been laid down.” Jalal’s brother died for ISIS, bringing him considerable praise from his new brothers.
The fourth character is teenager Ushna (Shavani Cameron) who arrives after being radicalised on the internet with a desire to become a “lioness among the lions.” But she has not told her parents and is also struggling with the realities of her harsh new abode.
Most of the dialogue in Kosminsky’s drama is in English, with minimal subtitles. Muslim and IS phrases are given brief translations on the screen, which are top-heavy as the drama opens but diminish after being established. Expect to hear much about the material world / heaven / the land of disbelief / the apostates. Needless to say, this is a drama without much humour.
But there are surprising cultural clashes too, especially from those leaving former lives behind. Social media is highly-regarded, especially for recruitment, along with video cameras for propaganda purposes. Coffee is an evil luxury or guilty pleasure. There are references to Captain America, Deal or No Deal, and fashion statements.
Clearly there is violence. Women beat their own as lesson-learning. Men are executed (I was reminded of The Handmaid’s Tale) in front of young boys. A bombing leads to dead babies which the camera does not avoid. The State does not shy away from the consequences of its actions, nor the increasing dilemmas for those at its dramatic heart.
The level of detail is impressive, clearly from vast research, and the performances are solid throughout, notably from Sam Otto & Ony Uhiara, as we step into this most-foreign world through their eyes.
Given we tend to sympathise with our drama heroes, the show will invariably create conflict in the eye of the viewer -but by the same token, it’s important to understand something in order to address it which I suspect is Kosminsky’s key agenda.
The State premieres 8:30pm Wednesday on National Geographic.