A new video released by the militant group, Islamic State of Iraq, is one example in a new trend of insurgent videos, a move away from gore and toward highly stylized dramatization. The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott explains that the video shows a profound awareness of pacing, dramatic effect, and American media imagery.
Countless videos have emerged from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, Osama bin Laden's haranguing denunciations of America and the West, there, montages of IED attacks on the U.S. military set to devotional music, and, of course, hostage videos, often culminating in grizzly murder.
But then there's the latest video released by a group calling itself The Islamic State of Iraq that claims to have killed the two U.S. soldiers who have been missing since May 12th. This footage does away with the gore and the polemics. To Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post, for all its implicit horror, the video is a sort of cinematic breakthrough, complete with narrative, humor and a denouement of heartbreaking subtlety. PHILIP KENNICOTT: Well, it begins with a graphic, and we've seen this before in these insurgent videos. And in this particular case it's four fireballs coming in from the edges of the screen and exploding in the middle.
And then we see images of the occupation, and these are images of American soldiers. They're tense. They're alert. They're really looking for danger. And then it switches, and we see what we would call the insurgents but what I think is more appropriately called, basically, partisans in the way they want to represent themselves.
These are guys out in a forest, it seems. They're under a tree. There's a beautiful light coming through. And the leader is standing over a fairly detailed map that's up in the branches of the tree, and he's pointing out the details of the attack.
And what's striking is this juxtaposition of nervousness, wariness of the occupation with guys out there in the hinterlands preparing attack fairly calmly. BOB GARFIELD: It's almost bucolic. PHILIP KENNICOTT: It is bucolic. And what I argue is that the word "partisan" here is being played with, because we have a tradition of partisan literature, and it's of people who take to the hills. They take to the fields. They leave the cities where there's war and occupation and they plan sort of the comeback of their country. And to some degree, I think that may be what's being sent as a message through this video. BOB GARFIELD: There's a bit of cinema magic employed in this video. They found some footage of President Bush conducting an orchestra. Tell me how they used that. PHILIP KENNICOTT: Well, we see that footage against a computer-generated background of flames. And you see the back of the president, you see him conducting, but it's so closely cut in the images that we see in the video that you can't quite make out what he's doing. And he seems a fairly ridiculous figure.
The message that we get from the video, and, in fact, it's spelled out explicitly at the end, is that Bush is ultimately responsible for the loss of the soldiers that prompted the release of this video. BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that the most heart-wrenching aspect of this is how the film culminates, and that is with artifacts - not with bound and gagged soldiers, not with beheadings, but just with the physical evidence that they are, in fact, captives. PHILIP KENNICOTT: Right, in the very last part of this video, probably about the last 40 seconds, there's a fairly dark and grainy camera pan over a credit card and some American money and a cross. And the cross almost seems to be glowing with a kind of preternatural light.
And if one of the aims of this video is to set up a dichotomy between occupation and resistance, between the city and these kinds of green leafy places that the attacks are being planned, well, the credit cards and the money really suggest the kind of corruption of the urban environment. The cross suggests the Christianity that seemed to be coming from the outside with the occupation.
So while we scour these videos looking for particular signs of the humanity of our soldiers, in fact, these final scenes really complete the argument in the video, which is one about a set of oppositions that is much more powerful within the audience that's watching these videos. BOB GARFIELD: Apart from the fact that we've now learned from your piece that we can apply cinematic criticism to insurgent videos, is there any larger significance here? PHILIP KENNICOTT: I don't want to put too much emphasis in the notion that we should sit back and do a kind of cinematic review of these things, because these are documents of people who are killing, the documents coming out of war. The families of the two soldiers that are involved in this video cannot possibly be comfortable with somebody sitting back and looking at it purely as an aesthetic production.
What's disturbing is the addition of aesthetic values to the propaganda message. That suggests that the argument is being made with more subtlety and with a longer view than we might have seen in the past. And I think that's worth taking into account.
When you're really angry and you really want to get a message out, you do so in a fairly crude way. When you're planning to be in the message business for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, you start learning the skills. And that, I think, should really chasten all of us. BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more thing, Philip. You've succeeded in deconstructing this video as a cinematic artifact and you've observed that it's more sophisticated as a piece of narrative. But have they succeeded in any way, with you as a viewer, in generating sympathy with what, you know, otherwise might just seem to be barbarism? PHILIP KENNICOTT: I tried to look at this video and take the labels off everybody involved - take the U.S. label off the military that we see in the opening scenes, take the insurgents, the terrorists, the Iraqi, the Sunni label off the masked men that we see planning this attack - and asked myself if I were a guy from Mars and looking at this, how effective a document would this be?
I hesitate to say that it formed any sympathy with me, because, you know, that's a [LAUGHING] dangerous thing to say at this point. But in a generic sense, it's a drama about occupation and resistance. And I think it probably works far better than we'd like to acknowledge. BOB GARFIELD: Wow, Philip, thank you very much. PHILIP KENNICOTT: Well, thank you for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Philip Kennicott is culture critic for The Washington Post. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] This is On the Media from NPR.