Peter Kosminsky: Why I am qualified to dramatise the lives of British Muslim ISIS fighters in The State

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Peter Kosminsky believes it is “legitimate” for him as a white middle-class man to dramatise the story of British Muslims fighting for ISIS in Syria because he is a “generalist” who can rely on expert research. 

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The State, written and directed by Kosminsky for Channel 4, follows the lives of four young Brits who leave to join the Caliphate as fighters, doctors and wives.

When asked why he was the right person to tell the story given his background and his acknowledged status as an “outsider”, the Emmy and Bafta-winning director said it was “a very fair question.”

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Speaking at a screening in London, he explained: “The weird thing about being someone like me is, we’re generalists. We move from subject to subject, and for a brief time become moderately expert on that subject.”

Kosminsky’s previous shows include Wolf Hall, The Government Inspector, and Shoot to Kill.

“Prior to doing this I became moderately expert on Henry VIII and what was going on in Tudor England,” he said. “And then that gets put aside. Prior to that it was the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and then that gets put aside to learn about Tudor England, and then that gets put aside to immerse myself in the research and the guidance of a far more expert group of people who put this material together.”

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That “expert group of people” was a team of Muslim researchers with relevant academic backgrounds who spent 18 months compiling material – from social media evidence to first-hand interviews – before a single frame was shot. 

Kosminsky continued: “Now, I personally believe that there’s room for a whole choir of different voices on these issues, but for better or for worse I’m lucky enough to have access to the airwaves and I thank Channel 4 from the bottom of my heart for all that opportunity.

“I think television is a very serious matter, I think it’s fine that some of it is escapist but primarily it’s a powerful tool and we should use it responsibly.

“So I try to use what little I’ve learnt over 37 years in this business to work with people who know far more about this subject, or Tudor England, or the other things I’ve worked on over the years, and help shape something and bring it to the screen.”

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Kosminsky defended the role of the “generalist” in television, arguing that specialising too narrowly would lead to fewer opportunities for writers and directors. 

“If the only people who could make these kinds of shows were people who themselves were immersed in the story, first of all it’s hard to bring objectivity in that case – although not impossible, I should say,” he said.

“And secondly what do they do then? They’re done in a way, because the next thing is unlikely to play to that particular speciality. So there is a role, I think, still for programmes that are rooted in reality and in research, for the generalist.

“I’m not saying it’s the only way to make these programmes, but I personally think it is a legitimate way.”

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The State opens in 2015 as four British Muslims pack their bags and head for the Turkish-Syrian border. We meet Jalal (Sam Otto) who wants to follow in his brother’s footsteps by fighting for Islamic State, and his best friend Ziyad (Ryan McKen). Then there’s idealistic teenage extremist Ushna (Shavani Seth), as well as Shakira (Ony Uhiara), a skilled doctor and single mother who arrives with her nine-year-old son Isaac.

Across four episodes, we’ll see what happens as they live their day-to-day lives in the Caliphate – and whether they embrace this extremist “death cult” or become disillusioned by the realities of slavery, child soldiers, rape, repression, murder, beheadings and the subjugation of women.

“‘Will this increase Islamophobia?’ is obviously something I’ve had in the front of my mind for the whole process, because that’s the last thing I want to do,” Kosminsky said, responding to concerns about how the audience could interpret the drama. 

Peter Kosminsky on the need to humanise British Muslim jihadis in Channel 4 drama The State

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Dismissing the young British people who joined Islamic State as “insane” won’t help us understand the problem, the Wolf Hall director believes

But referring to recent terror attacks, he continued: “I do feel that dramatists’ job is to hold a mirror up to society, and given the fact that thousands of Brits decided to go over there, and now that some of that issue is spilling back onto our streets in London and Manchester and other European cities and capitals – I just think this is an issue we need to address.”

He added: “I would ask you to reserve final judgement until you’ve seen the whole show, but I do think this is a responsible use of the resources and a responsible use of a very powerful medium.”

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The State begins on Sunday 20th August on Channel 4 at 9pm and will air over four nights. The international release on National Geographic will follow in September.