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Peter Kosminsky on Nat Geo ISIS Series: It Would Be ‘Easier’ to Make ‘Game of Thrones’

Peter Kosminsky said his upcoming drama “The State” sheds new light on what happens when westerners go to join ISIS, and added that while he has no problem with escapist programming, TV is a powerful tool with which to address social issues, in this case the experiences of radicalized youngsters travelling to Syria.

“These are not easy issues and they do open us as commissioners, producers and writers and directors to criticism; it would be a lot easier to make episodes of ‘Game of Thrones,’” Kosminsky said at a London screening of “The State,” which he wrote and directed. “But I personally believe television is an immensely powerful medium and it should be used to hold a mirror up to society, and society is in a pretty dark place at the moment.”

“The State” will run over four nights on Channel 4 in the U.K. this month, and over two on National Geographic in the U.S. in September. “There is no other depiction, certainly in drama, of what happens to young British Muslims when they arrive in Islamic state,” Kosminsky said at the screening, at which the series was warmly received.

The four-hour show is a co-production between Channel 4 and National Geographic, and Fox Networks Group Content Distribution is handling sales, with Canal+ in France an early buyer.

Kosminksy and his team spent 18 months researching the series, a process that included speaking to people who had returned from the Islamic State and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the wake of the controversy over HBO’s alternate reality slavery project, “Confederate,” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” the “Wolf Hall” director was asked whether, as a white filmmaker, he was the right person to tell the story of young non-white Muslims travelling to Syria.

“I think that’s a very fair question,” he said. “The weird thing about being people like me is we’re generalists. We move from subject to subject, and for a brief time become moderately expert on that subject. Prior to doing this I became moderately expert on Henry VIII and what was going on in Tudor England.”

“The State” focuses on four British protagonists, but also features other Westerners who have traveled to join ISIS from elsewhere in Europe. Cast members said the show is likely to received differently in the U.K. to the U.S.

Sam Otto, whose character, Jalal, is following in the footsteps of his older brother in going to fight for ISIS, said: “There is less, perhaps, of an emotional investment for Americans right now than there is in Britain. When we spoke to people in America it felt like ‘that’s quite interesting’ as opposed to here, where it touches a nerve.”

Ony Uhiara plays Shakira, a young British-trained doctor travelling to Syria with her 9-year-old son, and she said that the issues are less close to home for U.S. viewers.

“In light of what Ony and Sam have said the support of National Geographic is even more extraordinary.” Kosminsky said. “If they had not come on board with the funding this show would not have been made. Channel 4 have put huge energy behind it, but in this day and age it very hard for a broadcaster to fully find something as complicated as this.”

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