In the opening moments of The State, four people pack up in the UK and walk out the front door. We learn very little about any of them except that they are leaving their lives behind to go and join ISIS. On the premise alone, it sounds like a controversial notion for a TV series to explore, which it is, but The State absolutely earns the right to tell this story.
It's a complex and challenging story-line to explore, with The State exploring the gulf that exists between being sympathetic to a cause and the ability to leave behind everything that you've accepted about modern life in the western world.
It's not just men
When many of us consider the notion of radicalised westerners joining groups like ISIS, we often think of it purely in terms of young men. The State flips this idea on its head by telling concurrent stories about both men and women joining ISIS and the contrast in their experiences.
The series opens with the title card:
"It's 2015, men and women from all over the world are travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State."
After the four Brits first make their way across the border into Syria, as viewers, our pre-conceived notions are challenged. People seem relatively nice and friendly, while the living conditions look generally quite hospitable. It's when the characters move beyond the veneer and into the culture of ISIS that a greater sense of unease begins to permeate the series.
The women notice it first. Almost immediately they are advised to get married as soon as possible. "Just don't go outside - we leave that to the guys," the women are told.
Their phones are taken away from them, eliminating their ability to contact friends or family and cutting them off from the wider world. This, they are told, is to allow the men to remove any tracking equipment in the phone.
The experience the men face is less confrontational, but they are advised to delete any pictures on their phones of uncovered women, including their mothers.
It gets real very quickly
One doesn't think of ISIS as a jovial group, so it is somewhat jarring to watch the attitudes of the new recruits as they start their training. It seems almost like a boys-own adventure with the young men being trained survival and gun techniques. Watch for the moment where that attitude dramatically changes.
The laughter and casual male bonding all screeches to a halt when a training session involves strapping on a bomb vest. The jokes quickly come to an abrupt end.
Viewers of the series would be hard-pressed to then want to join ISIS. The show takes an incredibly grounded approach towards its subject and it never allows the organisation or the four Brits we follow in the series to come out of it with much sympathy. After all, what were they expecting?
Each of them seem to have wanted to join ISIS to fight, but each are presented with different realities. Jalal is taken aback at the idea that he might not actually be deployed to fight. Meanwhile the two women are told that there is nothing for women to do in the fight. After all: "What can you do that a man can't do better?"
This is not what they anticipated from life in ISIS.
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The State is a difficult and grueling series, but thoroughly rewarding. Your eyes will be opened and your expectations challenged.
The four-episode limited series The State is streaming now at SBS On Demand: