Interview with Peter Kosminsky, Writer and Director of 'The State'

Video highlights from The State

Writer and Director of 'The State', Peter Kosminsky details his vision for 'The State' and the challenges that arose while filming.

Why did you want to make the series?

The reaction to young people from all over Europe going across the border into Syria has ranged from complete puzzlement to people saying, “Well, they’re all mad.” It seemed to me that we needed something that was an antidote to simplistic thought., something that tried to help us understand why quite a diverse group of young men and women from a whole range of financial, intellectual and racial backgrounds should decide, in quite large numbers, to go and live in a theocracy under circumstances that some have described as a death cult.

It seemed to me that it was worth trying to understand why that might be happening, that we didn’t do ourselves or our society a service by simply saying, “Oh, they’re obviously all mad, and it’s not worth trying to investigate why.” The best way I thought to do that was to create some fictionalised dramatised characters and follow them on that journey and see what happened to them.

Do you think that creating a drama helps audiences understand motivations more easily than a straight documentary?

I think what most films on these kinds of subjects are trying to achieve is a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I, or my child, or my brother, or my father or my mother". So the question is to try to give an audience who would be utterly repelled by the actions of the ‘so called Islamic State’ a point of fellow feeling with people who might decide to go and join it – not to support or in any way endorse, but perhaps to try to comprehend. Then the question is what technique is most likely to succeed in giving the audience at least a chance to get inside the heads of those individuals. I feel drama based on extensive research is almost always the best technique in such circumstances.

What was your research process for the series?

Your normal first port of call when you’re creating and dramatising characters is to talk to people who have had similar experiences. In this case, being based in Britain, that was rather difficult. Because when people return to the UK from the Islamic State - even if they’ve decided it was a terrible mistake to go - they are typically placed in prison for about eight years. And we’re not allowed to interview them.

So researching this story, which we did over a period of about 18 months, was challenging right from the start. The way we chose to get around this problem was to visit some other countries, primarily in Europe, where returnees from the Islamic State, people who have thought better of their decisions to travel there, are put into some kind of process where they are given an entry back into society and are available to be interviewed.

We made a decision early on to start the series on the Turkish-Syrian border. Of course, there’s a whole period prior to that, which we might call a radicalisation period, but I felt that quite a lot had been done on that subject, including in Britz - a film I made for C4 several years ago.

What we really didn’t know is what happens day by day to men, women and children who migrate to the Islamic State. So our drama is very much focused on the day-to-day life, and that was the other main area of research. Trying to get as much information as we possibly could from the many, many social media postings, from confidential briefings that we had from intelligence sources, from other individual sources and from the extensive material being posted by ISIS itself. All of it went to create a picture of what life is like both for men and for women who make that journey to live and, in some cases, to fight in the Islamic State.

The characters are fictional. They may owe something to real individuals, but they would be amalgams or inspired by some individuals of whom we’ve become aware through the research. But what we always try to do is make sure that the events that happen to these fictional characters are all real. So everything you seen in our series is something that we have read about, been told about, seen or heard in the research.

You’ve said you want The State to be an “antidote to simplistic thought” and an attempt to try to understand the experiences of those who join ISIS in order to address and tackle its attraction to young people around the world. How would you answer those who think perhaps you’ve made the characters too sympathetic?

Television is, I think, arguably the most powerful medium there is for conveying ideas and emotions. We all know the power and the potential social impact of that. And it’s incumbent upon us, who use the medium, to use it responsibly. When I started work on this project, the idea that a small but not insignificant number of young Muslim men and women were attracted to the idea of going to live in the Islamic State was a real challenge to our society. 

What does the responsible filmmaker do in response to that challenge? The responsible filmmaker makes an attempt - difficult and perhaps controversial and perhaps debatable as it may be - to understand the motivations of people who choose to do something like that. I would say it’s our responsibility to do so.  It’s easy just to say they’re all mad or they should all be locked up or shot or bombed from a great height by a drone.  But I think that if we want to try to combat it, we first have to understand it. 

So yes, to understand a character you do, to some extent, have to sympathise with that character. If somebody is portrayed on the screen as relentlessly evil or incomprehensibly destructive or violent, you can watch it but you’re not going understand it or be able to explain or combat it thereafter. You’re just going to observe it  like you observe a creature in a zoo.  Our job as filmmakers and dramatists is to understand why someone might be romanced or be attracted by such a path.

Both our two main characters have second thoughts during the course of the series and feel they’ve made a terrible mistake and try to get out. But that doesn’t alter the fact that, for part of the series, we see young and quite sympathetic characters enthusiastically embracing a repugnant ideology. I do understand that’s going to be difficult - and it’s something we thought long and hard about at the planning stage of the project. But I believe that’s the only responsible way that we can try to understand, through drama, why a significant number of young people might have been tempted to do this thing and how we might begin to try to prevent that.

How did you choose your characters?

In many ways, I found the motivation and the experiences of women who travel across the border and into Syria as interesting, if not more interesting, than that of the men. So I made the decision early on to have four main characters: two men who are friends who’ve grown up together and who decide to travel together with the sole objective of becoming fighters and two women who are from very different backgrounds. One is a convert to Islam, and one is born into the religion.  One is an older professional woman travelling with her nine-year-old son, and the other is a school girl.

I thought by creating these four fictional characters, closely based on prototypes from our research, we would be able to get a sense of the range of experiences of people who arrive from countries all over the world – and a sense of what their experiences are when they arrive.

The men are primarily there to be trained, to become fighters and have a very short life expectancy, no more than about 18 months, typically. The women are expressly forbidden to fight and live a very cloistered existence, spending most of their time indoors, only allowed on the streets if accompanied by a mahram - a male guardian - and completely covered from head to foot in black cloth. So they have such polar opposite experiences when they get there, yet a lot of them come from societies where male and female life experiences are increasingly similar. So, I thought to show how they were going from a common male/female experience to such polar extreme experiences would make one of the more interesting aspects of any potential series.

Was there a particular reason to focus on a mother as one of the characters?

On the face of it, it’s an extraordinary thing for a woman to do, to take her nine-year-old male child to live in the Islamic State. The first reason I chose such a character was that there were several prototypes in the research, examples of exactly that. But I, personally as a writer and as a dramatist, wanted to create the character of Shakira, a junior hospital doctor working in the British National Health Service. I thought it would be interesting to look at why she brought her son to live in the Islamic State.

When we first meet Shakira, we think her motivation for bringing her son, who ultimately will have to become a fighter, into such a dangerous arena is purely a matter of faith.  Of course, as the story unfolds,  we discover that it was as much what she was fleeing from as what she was heading towards that motivated her. I think this is the case with most of the characters - an ostensible reason and a perhaps more personal reason more to do with private pain, frustration and disillusionment, which motivated so many of the characters we’ve read about in the research and, therefore, by extension is motivating our fictionalised characters as well.

Was there a particular rationale for you to use a cast of unknown actors in the series?

I think for National Geographic and Channel 4, it was the idea itself that was the strong driving force behind the commissioning of the project. It wasn’t being commissioned because of a particular star playing one of the roles; it was being commissioned because there was a desire to try, through drama, to understand the motivation and subsequent life experiences of some of these young people travelling to Syria. So there wasn’t the same level of pressure to cast well-known names as there might have ben on other projects.

How did you feel they coped with both getting into the character and understanding the motivation of their characters and with the shoot itself?

It is difficult for a young quite inexperienced cast to work their way into a subject such as this, to play characters quite remote from themselves. But we had a long rehearsal period, and our research team came to the rehearsal rooms and gave presentations to the leading cast, talked them through various aspects of life in the Islamic State, and gave some case studies of people who’d gone out there so that right at the very beginning of the process of playing the roles, they not only had the script but they had the lectures and the resource of the research department that they could apply to at any time for background information.

I see my job on a project like this as being to cast the right actors and then to make sure that they don’t go on this quite difficult journey alone. So, it’s less about focusing on the lighting and the cameras and more about being there as a support - and as a comfort sometimes. And when they come out the other end of a scene, if they’re upset, it’s my job to support them and maybe give them a little bit of perspective. It was a difficult thing to ask these young actors to do, but at least I could promise to go on the journey with them.

Why did you decide to have a lot of dialogue in Arabic?

My objective was to try to make this as realistic as possible. If you’re a Brit or an American and your main language is English, you’ll be surrounded in Raqqah by people speaking in a number of different Arabic dialects.  And that’s also quite an interesting dramatic device. So, we don’t subtitle the Arabic unless one of our main characters understands what’s being said. We understand what they understand.

The practicalities of this weren’t straightforward. None of our main actors spoke a word of Arabic when we began the process. So, the two main characters, who learn or already speak some Arabic in the script, had to begin a process, taking many months of acclimatisation to Arabic. We had to get different people to translate different lines of the script depending on whether a scene was in a Syrian, Egyptian or other local dialect and then render those phonetically. The cast was doing entire scenes in Arabic. They did incredibly well.

How did you deal as a director with the fact that the female cast spend a lot of time with their faces covered and only their eyes visible? 

For the viewer and for the filmmakers, it presented a set of challenges. First of all recognition. If everyone is dressed in black in a wide shot you really have no idea who you’re looking at. We had to work hard on this - so for example starting a scene inside, so people could have their veils up and then lower them.

The second and perhaps more difficult thing is you’re cutting off three quarters of the human face’s ability to express emotion. We can go in as tight as we like on the eyes, and we frequently did, but you don’t have the mouth, the muscles of the face that convey feeling, emotion. These are subtle little tells of which we’re all subliminally aware and which are part of getting a sense of what a character is thinking and feeling.  In drama, we’re used to seeing people’s faces and understanding and empathising with what they’re feeling due to way their faces respond, and at a very crude level, we were cutting this off by having the women covered.

But it also presented some pluses: it helps the audience understand what it feels like to be a women in that situation, feeling that discomfort, that claustrophobia, that confinement … and, on occasions, subjugation.  It also made us focus in on the eyes, and, of course, when you’re focused in on just the eyes, being moved in that way, tears forming in vision, the eyes filling with water can be profoundly affecting.

Female cast members dressed in the traditional Burqa

How did you decide on locations?

Ordinarily, I would have liked to have shot this somewhere in the Arab world, but given the subject matter, it was just too difficult. So, we did the next best thing: shooting in southern Spain just across the water from North Africa.  Almeria is an industrial town, and I think the locals found it quite surprising to see women in niqabs and men dressed as ISIS fighters carrying Kalashnikovs walking through the streets when they were seeing similar images on the news bulletins in the evenings. It was chilling to see it in that context.

The area around Raqqah was quite modern looking – at the time the series is set and before the airstrikes against ISIS - and Almeria and some of the surrounding towns and villages turned out to be a pretty good match for that look. Also because of the proximity of North Africa, there were a significant number of Arabic- speaking people who could work as extras and could play some of the smaller roles.  So although, on the face of it, it was slightly counterintuitive to shoot something that was set in the Middle East in southern Spain, in actual fact, there were a number of reasons why that worked out quite well.

How did you and the actors deal with the graphic scenes of ISIS atrocities?

Some years ago, I made a drama about British soldiers in Bosnia, and we had a scene where a British solider had to climb into the back of a truck filled with decomposing corpses. And obviously, it was extremely difficult to simulate decomposing corpses. So what we ended up doing was just using sound effects and playing the scene on the soldier’s face as he tried to move over these rotting corpses. And it was powerful, you didn’t see the corpses at all, but you heard the sounds and you saw the reaction on his face.

I tried to use a similar technique here with the punishment beatings,  and the beheadings and the various abominations that have taken place in the Islamic State. So, you never actually see any of these things happen on camera, but they’re shot in such a way that you still have a pretty intense, emotional impact. There are sound effects and because of the wonderful performance of the cast and the supporting artists, the extras, you’re in no doubt what they’re seeing and you almost feel you’ve seen the event even though you haven’t. So, although nobody watching this show will see anything gruesome, I think they will feel they’ve experienced at least some of the emotional power and horror of those events through the reactions of our characters.

Graphic scenes of a beheading in 'The State'

One of the hardest aspects was the fact that we had a young actor in one of the main parts. And his character needed to witness some appalling things. So, we built it into our schedule and structure right from the start to protect him from those things. Although Nana is an experienced young actor, nonetheless, he is a child, so we used all of the filmmaker’s tricks to protect him. For example, when he appears to be looking at some severed heads on railings or witnessing a beheading, he doesn’t actually see them; they’re not there, we shoot them later when he’s gone. So, you can immediately understand that a huge amount of weight
was placed on his acting ability - to appear to be seeing something horrific while not actually seeing it, and that’s why I think his performance is truly extraordinary because you absolutely believe he is seeing the things he appears to see.

The State’s lead characters are British; how do you think it will resonate with international audiences?

I’m a British dramatist, and so perhaps inevitably our research focused on the experience of Brits, and I chose to write the characters that I understood best, which were Brits. But there are characters from America, Germany, Scandinavia and France and many other countries.  The truth is that although the main characters are British, this is a problem, a challenge that has been faced by many, many developed countries around the world. The tens of thousands of people that migrated across various borders into Syria came from dozens of countries from all over the world, and we’ve tried in our casting and in our character development to reflect that And to show the fact that this was a challenge that is faced by all our societies and not just Britain and America.

Your last project was Wolf Hall, about the court of King Henry VIII. Were there any similarities to your approach to filming The State?

On the face of it, I’ve made a pretty severe transition from Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII’s Tudor court, to the challenge posed by the Islamic State in the 21st century. In fact, there were more similarities than you might imagine. If you expressed religious dissent in Henry VIII’s England, you were quite likely to have various bits of your anatomy chopped off in public; to be hung, drawn, and quartered while still alive; or to have your belongings seized; be imprisoned and tortured in various, truly barbaric ways. And this was for what we now would think of as unbelievably trivial deviations of doctrine or faith – for example, believing that it was legitimate to be able to read the bible in the vernacular, rather than in Latin. For that people could be beheaded and have their heads put on a stake on a pole on London Bridge for the maggots and crows to feast on. It’s not that different from the kinds of punishments and excesses and atrocities which we now see manifest in the Islamic State. So, while on the surface, it might seem like I’ve gone from one type of project to something utterly different, in fact, there were points of commonality.

The State premieres on Wednesday 23rd of August at 8.30pm on National Geographic.

Header Image: Peter Kosminsky, Writer and Director of 'The State'. Photograph by Giles Keyte. 

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