The State

A few days ago I came across an article on the bbc’s website about The State, Channel Four’s recent four part drama around Isis. Everyone seemed to be praising it and saying how gritty and realistic it was, so I decided to give it a watch. The events it concerns are still quite current, so I was interested to see what it had to say about them. I just finished giving all four episodes a watch, and must say I am quite intrigued.

I’m in two minds about it. I found the Mise-en-scene somehow too clean and sanitised. No matter how gritty the film tries to be, it still looks like a commercial tv program. The use of things like computers, the internet and mobile phones gives the piece too much of a western aesthetic. While people out there must of course use such technology, it seemed oddly at odds with the brutality the piece was trying to portray. It was as if, no matter how hard it tried, the film couldn’t escape the fact that it is a western interpretation of what is happening in the middle east.

Moreover, the actors feel less like desperate freedom fighters and more like…well, actors, fresh out of drama school. They were trying to portray half-crazy religious fanatics; they seemed too sane, and not unhinged enough. The situation they are in is absolutely brutal, yet they still felt to me like westerners. Don’t get me wrong: this is indeed a brutal piece of television, definitely worth watching; yet it couldn’t escape it’s status as a piece of western art made, presumably, by western, highly educated people, trying their best to depict a scenario from the outside. At times it felt like a history or geography lesson, with characters going into passages of exposition, seemingly tagged on for the benefit of the viewer. These jarred with the flow of the piece, and almost seemed included just to demonstrate how much the writers knew. On the other hand, I like how Arabic terms were given on-screen definitions. In films like these, one must balance the need to educate with the need for verisimilitude, and unfortunately I don’t think this one quite struck it.

I did indeed learn quite a lot from this film, as i’m sure many people did; yet something about it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t gritty or dirty enough – there wasn’t enough sand or dust. The hospital scenes, for instance, could have been filmed at our local NHS: such scenes did not feel like depictions of a hellish, impoverished hospital in some bombed out Syrian city, but like something from Holby City. The problem might have been that this was a television program, and I did not feel as drawn in as I might have had this been a piece of cinema. Others have praised it for it’s grittiness and realism, but although it certainly tried to depict the brutality of what is currently happening in the middle east, to me it didn’t seem real enough. It felt to me like just another television drama, it’s script full of cliches and it’s characters nowhere near politically or religiously radical enough. To my mind, the audiovisual language used was too conventionally televisual when perhaps, given the subject matter, it should have been more full bodied, weighty and cinematic.

I feel bad about saying that though, because what this program was trying to achieve was quite monumental. Very few of us can possibly imagine what is happening out there right now. For Channel Four to try to amend that is praiseworthy. This was it’s attempt, as best it could, to show us a horrifying reality; yet it would appear that that reality, that Real, might be just too horrifying for it to truly show.

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