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Director of acclaimed ISIS drama The State says TV is too ‘dumbed down’

The director behind a recent hit TV drama about the Islamic State says the success of his program shows people are hungry for well-rounded information about the militant group.

“For all the [news] coverage, for all the rants by politicians like Donald Trump about ISIS, there’s a deficit of information,” Peter Kosminsky tells WikiTribune. “There are clearly things that people felt they didn’t know.”

Kosminsky’s provocative ISIS drama The State – the result of 18 months of research – offered a compelling and gripping account of life inside the caliphate. The series was widely praised upon its release.

Millions tuned in to watch The State and the mini-series has proved to have a popular on-demand afterlife  – which Kosminsky says demonstrates that the dramatized account of Islamist fundamentalists is “obviously fulfilling some kind of need.”

“Television drama is the only way to get a serious topical subject in front of that many people almost simultaneously,” the director and writer says.

A photo of director Peter Kosminsky on the set of ISIS drama The State
Peter Kosminsky on the set of Channel 4 drama The State (Photo: Channel 4)

Kosminsky’s drive to create stories about complex subjects has made him a controversial filmmaker and writer. Along with The State, Kosminsky’s shows like BritzThe Government Inspector and Shoot to Kill  blurred the lines between documentary and drama to bring a deeper understanding of real-life events to the mass public.

Factual drama “is a powerful tool for the dissemination of ideas” that offers an alternative to tough-to-digest TV news or straight documentaries, according to Kosminsky.

“You’re dramatizing real people with whom the audience can associate, maybe understand and follow and even empathize with, and you’re putting those ideas out to an audience that numbers in the millions,” he added.

Around 2.5 million Britons have watched The State on the UK’s Channel 4 in the month since its release – far exceeding expectations.

“There was all but astonishment at Channel 4 at the audience,” Kosminsky said. “If it had got 500,000 viewers, [the channel] wouldn’t have been surprised or particularly disappointed.”

Part of the problem with television today, according to Kosminsky, is the “dumbing down” of factual TV content.

“It is virtually impossible to make a factual programme about a subject of any complexity without a presenter of some kind, who usually has to be a moderately famous face and we have endless scenes of them wandering about in front of the camera or dressing up,” he said.

That’s why he thinks factual drama has appealed to audiences – because it offers a more nuanced approach to true stories.

Still, there are risks associated with dramatizing true events in the age of misinformation. Kosminsky’s Shoot To Kill – a dramatization of the shooting of six terror suspects in Northern Ireland in the 1982 – was praised for its balance but criticized for “blurring the line between what is true and what is televisually convenient.”

Kosminsky acknowledged that “the danger, of course, is that a drama can create a misleading impression of what actually occurred.”

That’s why he said program creators must be mindful of their power and use the medium responsibly.

“That for me is almost holding a mirror up to society through drama to say, ‘Let me show you an aspect of current life from a slightly different angle, perhaps an angle you hadn’t thought about,’” he says.

Below, Kosminsky responds to questions from the WikiTribune community. Answers have been condensed.

Q: If you were offered to make a prequel, would you?
A: The prequel … If I had been interested enough to write the story of those four people making the decision to travel, I would have written it.

Q: Some critics suggested that The State failed to explore why people become radicalised, that it lacked a backstory. Could you explain why?
A: That’s a fair comment… But I never set out to do something definitive. There are many stories that could be told about this complicated and troubling subject. I just wanted to tell one particular type of story… I’d seen a good deal in the media around the time I was working on this about radicalization. A lot of it was quite familiar.

Read more here.

[Full interview transcript]


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Lydia is a staff journalist at WikiTribune, where she writes about politics, women's rights, inequality, sexual politics and more. Previously she headed up the women’s rights and political content at Konbini for over two years. In 2016, she made ‘Building Big’, a documentary about bigorexia and male body image. Her work has also been published in Dazed & Confused, Refinery29, Vice, Lyra, Banshee and Buffalo Zine. She is based in London.

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