A lot can be said, and has been said, about the videos put out by the Islamic State. The execution videos, the taped warnings from hostages, and the feature-length films aimed ostensibly at Western audiences all contain blood-chilling content. The organization's propaganda machine is exacting in its dissemination of terror.
Following the Islamic State's release last week of a 55-minute English language film called Flames of War, numerous US media outlets responded with apparent astonishment at the production quality. The film, the second feature-length Islamic State movie released, was deemed "sophisticated," "Hollywood-style," and "slick." Watching Flames of War before it was removed from YouTube, I found the production to be none of the above.
As horrifying as the Islamic State's productions may be, they are not slick.
Like its precursor, The Clanging Swords IV — confusingly, parts I, II, and III do not exist — Flames of War consists of footage of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving speeches, Islamic State fighters fighting, and the group's grim speciality, brutal killing. It relies heavily on jump cuts, repetitive narration, and artless visual effects.
"It is by no means done on a high-end budget," visual effects artist Stu Hunter, who's worked on several big-budget Hollywood movie franchises, told VICE News. "It's definitely the equivalent of college kids making a documentary with basic film equipment and editing."
Certainly, the production reflects a basic familiarity with video production, with slow-motion shots lingering on jihadi fighters; camera angles are varied, and different filters are applied. The amount of post-production effort alone sets Islamic State video far apart from the grainy, unedited al Qaeda videos that came before. But as Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir told VICE News, "a commercial producer or HR firm in suburban Kansas City could have done a better job" than the Islamic State's videographers.
Yet there's a disquieting naiveté in the Western response to the Islamic State productions — amazement and surprise that the group could put out video with any awareness of Western sensibilities. Why is the West so shocked that the most well-funded terrorist organization in history, one that has international reach in a globalized epoch of advanced techno-capitalism, is able to produce reasonably competent propaganda films?
I sat through the first 50 minutes of 'Flames of War' downright bored. The final five minutes, however, contained a horror that struck marrow deep.
The surprise could stem from an apparent contradiction. The caliphate is supposed to return its denizens to ultra-conservative, hyper-traditional ways of living, yet it relies on modern technologies and weaponry to wage and spread jihad. But astonishment at the Islamic State's technological sophistication may also be tinged with something uglier: a hubris and — to use the words of George W. Bush, of all war-mongers — a "soft bigotry of low expectations" on the part of the West.
Only an eye with lowered expectations could see Flames of War as a high-quality production. To describe the Islamic State's films as works of sophistication does the dual work of giving the violent propaganda undeserved praise while tacitly perpetuating assumptions about the unsophistication of brown-skinned people (which has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with Western racism).
There is still another reading that is more generous to the astonished responses: That these films prompt a rightful incredulity that a person could take footage of beheadings and massacres and use editing software to increase its dramatic effect. I sat through the first 50 minutes of Flames of War — explosions, speeches, gunfire, droning narration, and unvaried background music — downright bored. The final five minutes, however, contained a horror that struck marrow deep.
I believe it is not what we have seen before — so-called Hollywood-style visual effect efforts and Final Cut Pro flourishes — that makes the productions successful bearers of terror. Rather, it is the Islamic State's careful capturing of what we are quite unused to visually confronting. Flames of War closes with a massacre and a mass execution, the second seemingly staged specifically for the film. More than once, we are confronted with watching men in their very desperate last moments, facing imminent death. It is the same vein of authentic horror delivered by the beheading videos of James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
The Islamic State's videos belong to a tradition of gothic horror in that they are — to borrow a term from Freud — uncanny. That is, they are familiar and profoundly alien all at once, to disturbing effect. The cinematography is unremarkable and the techniques are familiar to anyone with a passing awareness of video production. We are unfamiliar, though, with real execution; the way a body seizes as a blade hacks at its throat. The way a living man is shot in the head, a corpse before he hits the ground. We have seen it in Hollywood movies, and yet we have never seen it before.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard