On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Cinematic ISIS Studies (August 12, 2014)


I have been for some time mesmerized by this new BBC “interactive” video focused on the history of ISIS, called “The Rise of the Islamic State.” This is a truly powerful production, tracing the history of ISIS from its beginnings as Al Qaeda in Iraq, to its “rebranding” to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant during the civil war in Syria, to its current aggression in Iraq. It was “produced by Lucy Rodgers, Emily Maguire, Richard Bangay and Nick Davey,” with “Additional research by David Gritten.”

            While it is not entirely clear to me how the video is “interactive” (indeed, it seems rather to be a cinematic production, providing both historical information and illustrative video evidence such as maps and television clips, with all rendered intensely dramatic by graphic design and a carefully arranged soundtrack), I am convinced that this production marks a new era in journalism. If the BBC can keep putting together segments that offer both historical and geographical contextualization, even as they render all as dramatic as big-budget documentary, then I think many will be looking for their news exclusively from online venues.

            As readers of this blog may know, I have been quite fascinated with ISIS, particularly since its declaration of a caliphate and the ambitious ambivalence of its name pose profound threats to the global state system. In all my scouring of the internet to learn about this group’s latest manifestation, this video is by far the most powerful production.

            The BBC states that it is experimenting with “new ways” of “telling stories”—and I must say that I am quite intrigued by the power of “The Rise of the Islamic State.” While the intensity and audacity of ISIS’s actions are clearly a key to the power of this video, the production here clearly has a narrative confidence and competence of its own. The production, especially in the opening scenes that show images of confident and well-armed ISIS fighters and statistics about their numbers and money, seems chillingly to remind one of  terrorist recruitment videos, while the eerie music and the haunting clips present precisely the atmosphere of violence and paranoia upon which a group like ISIS feeds. Seeing the images of AQI and later ISI and ISIS leaders set against statements by Bush and Obama subtly equates the two factions, even as the reference to the US-led invasion, occupation, and departure from Iraq foregrounds how ISIS’s survival clearly undermines the notion of US success in its 2003 invasion. Watching the BBC video, I found it hard not to think that this might as well be an ISIS production, insofar as it accords such a powerful, almost romantic image of the group, all set against the images of massive, U.S.-led violence. At the same time, it is also crucial to note that “the Rise of the Islamic State” is incredibly effective in offering the history of ISIS, placing it in precisely the historical and geographical contexts needed to understand its origins and aims.

            Count me among those who are quite thrilled by this new method of “telling stories.”


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

2 thoughts on “Cinematic ISIS Studies (August 12, 2014)

  1. Pingback: ISIS as Managing Medieval and Modern Communications (August 13, 2014) | Terri-Stories

  2. Pingback: “A Haunting ISIS Flag: Unexpected Museum Guards and the Fate of Palmyra” (May 23, 2015) | Terri-Stories

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