This was really interesting.
Bottled Songs 1-4 is four essays in the form of letters between the two journalist directors, on the topic of ISIS and their propaganda. I don’t know how to say this without it sounding like a back-handed compliment, but I kinda expected less from this, you know, more of the totally unproductive and unreflective hand-wringing we’re used to on the subject. Instead you have two people who know a lot about factual filmmaking taking it apart with their experience and expertise and trying, and in part failing, to explain it to themselves. It is fascinating.
The first essay is about a propaganda video of a forced march of captured Syrian troops, where the men are stripped to their underwear, jeered at, humiliated, and then executed. The filmmaker points out how the act of filming these men was an integral part of their torture, that the ISIS fighters used multiple cameras and made sure stand as up close and in the thick of it as possible. They wanted their prisoners to know that they were a spectacle. They wanted them to know that they would be seen naked not just by them, but the whole world. And that long after their deaths, all that would be recorded of them was their humiliating death, powerless to stop any of it, an insignificant extra in the saga of ISIS.
Is there any way to treat these images as anything other than the weapon of torture they were created as? Is there any way to show them without becoming culpable in the torture as it was designed?
As a horrific massacre, YouTube quickly pulled down the ISIS video, but it remains up on YouTube as a news story. Still the same video, just with a different logo in the corner. In fact, it has been proliferated many, many more times, more than it could ever have originally been shared, by churning its way through the mass media machine, iterated time after time with a new logo, new headline. The biggest propagators of ISIS propaganda is Western media. How is that possible?
A lazier response would be just to shrug and say irresponsible journalism, but a better way is to look at how both their interests align. ISIS want to look like big badasses. Our media wants to show them as all-powerful villains. ISIS demands attention. Our media needs stories that are compelling. ISIS want to be seen as important and not to be ignored. It’s pretty fucking hard to ignore them if they do stuff like this. In this way, ISIS use guerilla tactics to appropriate the machinery of their enemies’ mass media communications networks to their own ends, spreading their propaganda far wider than they could possibly reach on their own, and even turning it to their own use in the torture of their victims.
The second essay is a really interesting look at the editing of Flames of War, and comparison to both left and right wing propaganda films of the past. What are the stylistic techniques being used in the transitions to make the viewer feel like they are there alongside fighters, in camaraderie with ISIS frontliners? But also weirdly, Flames of War isn’t just trying to get the viewer to identify with the fighter, but make the viewer feel part of the propaganda process, like they are taking shots as a photojournalist, spinning through footage as an editor. It’s clear that that is now seen as just as big a part of the war as the fighting, and in doing so, sharing the film as important as firing a weapon.
The last two are portraits, one of an ISIS fighter who goes by the name Abu Abdallah Guitone, and one of British journalist and hostage John Cantlie. In both they struggle to separate what is there from what is being shown. The ISIS fighter is well publicised through social media and their own propaganda, and yet there are differing accounts on almost everything about him, from his name to his nationality. That is precisely what is useful about him, he is an everyman, whatever you need him to be. And this is used by ISIS but also those stoking Islamaphobia in Europe where his face is used to inspire the “he could be anyone” paranoia of their cause. The fact remains all we know is he is young, and so early in his life, he is enacting such horrors.
John Cantlie was a correspondent for the Telegraph when he was captured by ISIS. His colleague James Foley was abducted with him and beheaded. John has since appeared in a number of ISIS propaganda videos, not simply as a hostage, but a host of his own news show. The survival/defection speculation is always going to hang over a story like that, but instead it is more interesting to focus on what they would want John for. Why use him that way, what do they get out of it? If it was just to exhibit him as a trophy, they accomplished that with his hostage videos. With the news show, they can also do a bit of “He truly loved Big Brother”, as a conversion is always a crowdpleaser. But at one point, they show him staring up impotently at an American drone plane, begging to be rescued. So, that’s not it, not entirely. Again, it goes back to that guerrilla warfare tactic of using your enemies assets against them. John on his own is not a mass media network, but he has cultural capital that is useful. He has his RP English accent, he has the authoritative cadence of an experienced newscaster, he has the mannerism and gestures of legitimate information presentation. All of that can now be turned to distribute the message ISIS wants.
For essentially being four 20-minute videos run together, that mostly consist of a computer desktop and stuff pulled up on it, this is a fascinating, emotional and really worthwhile film. Really kicked my expectations for it out the park.