Selective Gore

How ISIS Ripped Off ‘Natural Born Killers'

The butchers of the so-called Islamic State are stealing Hollywood techniques to make their propaganda films.

09.23.14 9:55 AM ET

The propagandists of the self-styled Islamic State, known for their exploitation of social media to lure recruits, are now experimenting with editing techniques that draw on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and genre films like Saw and The Evil Dead to represent their fighters as heroic warriors in a world of horrors.

The latest propaganda video posted online last weekend by the media arm of ISIS, as the group is commonly known, is a 55-minute documentary called The Flames of War. It employs scenes of stylized violence “manipulated to augment the violence of the [ISIS] fighters” and to paint their combat in mythic colors, says film studies professor Margaret Bruder, the author of several works on the aesthetics of violence.

The documentary is the longest video produced by ISIS so far. A trailer for the film was released last week, timed, analysts suspect, as a response to remarks by General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that confronting ISIS, or ISIL as the U.S. government calls it, may require American ground troops if President Barack Obama’s strategy of using U.S.-led strikes from the air and proxy forces on the land should fail.

U.S. intelligence officials are scrutinizing the propaganda video featuring close-up battle scenes and special-effects-enhanced footage. Of most interest are the English-speaking narrator and a masked American-accented combatant featured in the film. The fighter talks directly to the camera as he oversees the execution of several captured soldiers from Syria’s 17th Army Division after ISIS overran an airbase outside the town of Raqqa this summer.

The soldiers are forced to dig their own shallow grave and are then shot in a chilling scene at the conclusion. A Syrian soldier denounces President Bashar al-Assad, who he says abandoned the defenders of the Raqqa airbase, and he urges the mothers of Syrian soldiers to get their sons out of the army lest they share the same fate.

Bruder, who teaches at Western Carolina University, says the techniques in The Flames of War often are handled clumsily. Some analysts have dismissed the feature-length documentary as banal, arguing it bears the hallmarks of previous ISIS propaganda, including the use of Hollywood-style effects and bloodthirsty calls to arms.

But Bruder says there is more to The Flames of War than that, arguing the film echoes at times Nazi propaganda, especially the work of Leni Riefenstahl, the director of Olympia and Triumph of the Will, which also employed unusual camera angles, abrupt transitions and extreme close-ups. 

Throughout The Flames of War the fighting often looks mythic rather than real, and that is due to the quality of its staged action with carefully calculated camera angles and editing.

“The film isn’t, as a number of sources have claimed, an imitation of current Hollywood violence,” says Bruder. “Action movie violence is rarely ‘graphic’ now in the sense of Sam Peckinpah,” whose “blood ballets” in The Wild Bunch (1969) marked a turning point in Panavision carnage. Instead, the ISIS moviemakers reach back 20 years to Natural Born Killers in terms of effects. “But there is stylistic overkill and the production comes off at times more like the gore movies Saw or The Evil Dead, Bruder says. “It has been produced by someone who is in love with Final Cut Pro,” an editing software.

The filmmakers, who are most likely Western or Western-educated, appear to be learning on the job and as they develop techniques, imagery and narratives appealing to young, disaffected Western Muslims. “In The Flames of War there is heavy use of slow motion and image manipulation to glorify the fighters and make their deaths aesthetically pleasing,” says Bruder.

In one scene a jihadist is hit by an explosion and the video slows almost to still frames. The narrator then praises the fighter, quoting a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad says “Those who have taken their position on the battlefield, and do not turn their faces away until they are killed” are the best of martyrs.

In film terms, the slow-mo technique diminishes the agony of the jihadist’s death and in a film that runs almost an hour only one ISIS fighter is shown actually dying as “his soul was gently lifted.” This in contrast to the footage of the group’s foes slaughtered en masse.

Though the videos posted by ISIS’s English-language propaganda arm, al-Hayat Media Center, are full of violence, brutality and viciousness, there are times when the filmmakers show restraint from how they handle the death of jihadists, presumably not to frighten off potential recruits, to how they present the deaths of Western hostages. In the beheading videos of American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines the actual executions are not shown—only the aftermath is. 

Bruder says the avoidance of showing the gore indicates an “awareness of the way the presentation of violence frames our reading of the group creating the representations.”

Dawn Perlmutter, a semiotician and director of the Symbol Intelligence Group, agrees the Islamic State propagandists are displaying an increasing sophistication about how to present violence in their output, especially when it comes to material designed for Western audiences. “Their beheading videos are very different from ones ordinary IS members are posting online. The official ones are definitely focused on recruitment. The actual violence is not included in the videos—I think they wanted to have greater dissemination and, as best they can, circumvent social media bans. They are almost like scripted reality shows.”

She says the group is combining symbols and signs drawn from Islamic and Arabic tribal cultures and jihadist conventions and adapting them for propaganda purposes using modern technology. “Executing by beheading ritualistically justifies the violence,” she says. “They are trying to keep the beheadings in the context of justifiable slaughter. They are presenting them as Islamic judicial, theological punishments and part of the ritual required is that they explain why they are doing the beheading.”

But they adapt as well the symbolic signatures of their jihadist forerunners in much the same way they are playing with editing techniques.

Perlmutter says Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mentor of the IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, staged his beheadings too and was the first to have victims dressed in the Gitmo-style orange jumpsuits. He also displayed their corpses stomach down and the head placed on the center of the back. Al-Baghdadi has kept to his mentor’s convention but has added the twist of announcing and presenting in each beheading video the next scheduled victim. She says: “It is blood-curdling and shocking and it is becoming his symbolic signature.”