Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Weirdness of Islamic State's Genre-Bending Brand of Hollywood Snuff

So, I watched it.

And I can advise that you really needn't yourself, for it is not the sort of thing very easily unseen. But I'm also here to tell you, and with the same urgency, that there is something strange and disturbing taking place in the shadows of what we consider our civilised world.

 Murdered - Lt. Moath al-Kasasbeh

The phenomenon of the "hostage execution video" emerged largely in the post-9/11 milieu. At its birth, it was grounded largely in a "YouTube aesthetic",  the videos were grainy, clearly DIY and largely post-production free. From this well sprung their effectiveness, as clearly authentic, their power to shock coming through forcing viewers to "bear witness" to horrific events.

And those perpetrators of the events are thus to be feared, and thereby they are able to spread and instil fear across the Western world from hemishperes-removed cave-bound eyries. A virus that infects a host without ever making contact, the perfect poison to any self-contained system.

But this latest video, readers, cataloguing the abased murder of Jordanian pilot Lt. Moath al-Kasasbeh, THIS video is something altogether different, something somewhere, at some profound level more disturbing than the mere evils depicted. Something the likes of which the art of recorded real-time imagery (for we cannot, surely, reach to call this cinema?) has never seen before.

It's the snuff that James Cameron would make.

And I watched it. And I'm still sat there mute and still a full fifteen minutes later, because I simply haven't got the conceptual tools to process what I've just experienced. It seems to flip alternatively between being a work of staggeringly bad propaganda and then suddenly discursive genius, on a frequency measured in femtoseconds.

But why would it seem so dumb? The video runs for a full 22 minutes. Where previous hostages were only given a short amount of time to camera, al-Kasasbeh is given wholly 17 minutes speaking directly to camera to relate his story. The effect is devastating. We spend this entire time staring into the mournful, protesting eyes of a condemned man, he speaks directly to us, assisted only by occasional captions to make propaganda purposes. al-Kasasbeh is perfectly lit throughout, the camera cuts in and out with a professionalism that only a trained film editor could possibly possess. Most surreally, al-Kasasbeh's figure is occasionally morphed through cgi so that he is often made to "fade out" of the shot, the figure re-emerging from the black-background in rendering him momentarily cyborg-like.

In short, it's almost inconceivable this film was edited on the back of a flat-bed driving round the back blocks of Raqqa. It looks like it's had about thirty grand's worth of Macintosh hardware thrown at it.

And as the video draws to a close, something very peculiar happens. Islamic song wells up, reverberating, filling the audio. And we are in a desert. And al-Kasasbeh is there, and he is shot as though is is some sort of Hollywood hero in the midst of a great moral turmoil, the camera drifts in and out of him in soft focus. al-Kasasbeh walks past a row of what we assume to be masked Islamic State fighters in slow motion, they appear impassive, faceless, terrifying, but it is al-Kasasbeh who is shot like he is our hero. Anyone who didn't know the real narrative here would think they were about to watch the man in orange smite the evil faceless ones.

But then, comes the act itself. And it's bad propaganda. Pictures of arab children in hospitals, burned, limbs severed, lifeless. You can imagine the retinue. Each picture explodes in a ball of flames. And this is the line we're meant to draw. "You burn ours, we burn yours". But you can't watch a very real human being with a very real torch in his hand make a choice to perform an act, to bring his arm down to kill another and ever see that equivalent.

No. You can't win anything like this. But whoever has the wherewithal to be crafting these images KNOWS that. SURELY? Yet they spend 22 minutes building empathy with the figure they are about to murder. They use all the techniques of traditional Hollywood framing, narrative and authority to sanctify him. It's hard to escape without the conclusion that the propagandists here are so driven by a sense of divine providence that somehow al-Kasasbeh's role becomes more akin to that of an unwitting martyr in a process to which all parties must accede, than that of an enemy.

And I've been struck by this sense before. If you're at all interested in these issues and have not seen Josh Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing", I advise you to track down this extraordinary documentary. Former members of Indonesia's murderous street militias are encouraged to address their past crimes by devising a theatrical performance. As the murderers re-stylise their crimes through song and dance, those they murdered sing songs of thanks to their killers for having liberated their souls.

It seems to me that from the moment one commits the act, the murderer begins immediately realigning their moral world to accomodate it, but the dimensions of that moral shift are very different where you have an ideology handy to manage it for you. I guess this is how the boys from the IS sleep at night.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram continue visiting the same and even more debased evil and misery on countries that aren't major oil exporters.

We really haven't the faintest idea what war we're even fighting here.