When an ABC producer approached RTVF professor David Tolchinsky about completing a formal investigation of film archetypes and techniques used in ISIS recruitment videos, Tolchinsky was hesitant to take on the project. He was also hesitant to do this interview.
Tolchinsky is the Chair of Northwestern's Department of Radio/Television/Film and the founder and director of Northwestern's MFA program in Writing for Screen and Stage. He is not an expert on ISIS, and does not want to be. However, using his substantial filmmaking knowledge to study the recruitment propaganda of the extremist group, Tolchinsky determined that some of the same techniques that reel you into binge-watching Netflix also appear in videos meant to reel people into warfare on behalf of the Islamic State.
According to a press release from Northwestern, the Department of Defense is funding research similar to Tolchinsky's, since recrutiment via internet propoganda is a "growing concern" for the U.S. government.
Specifically, the extremists group's films use sophisticated graphics and storytelling techniques that call out to the disenchanted who are searching for glory by promoting images and plot lines of the lone individual destined for something more.
“You have people like Luke Skywalker—I use these action films and cartoons because they’re very clear— he’s living on this farming planet, but he always felt that he was meant for something more, so even if he dies, there’s the feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m doing something that’s going to change the world,’” said Tolchinsky, “and I think they’re using all these tactics.”
What’s even more terrifying than the similarity between sitcoms and terrorist propaganda is the fact that using this plot line works, sometimes. At the least, it garners a lot of views. “I think 99 percent of the people who will watch them will think, ‘Oh this is silly or stupid, but there is that one," he said. "There’s the one who might feel disaffected in some way or alienated.”
Tolchinsky has studied two films in particular: No Respite, an acidically-toned commentary on the weaknesses of the United States and the rest of the world compared to ISIS, and Abu Muslim, a Canadian ISIS recruit’s story and his stated reasons why others from Europe and the United States should join the Islamic State.
No Respite features powerful graphics and booming sound effects, showing pained U.S. soldiers turning to suicide while smiling ISIS soldiers of all races stand beneath their flag. The video highlights the idea that “we might be small, but we’re mighty,” Tolchinsky says.
“I noticed this time watching No Respite, that they’re using pretty good graphics. They have a real sense of build,” he said on the story structure. “I wonder if this person is someone who has studied filmmaking and therefore this is no accident."
Abu Muslim, on the other hand, uses a more empathetic approach, showing a Canadian man talking about his similarity to other people from North America and Europe and his not being an “outcast.” The role of Islam is prominent in the man’s life, which has prompted him to move away from countries that ISIS claims are fighting the religion at large through war in the Middle East.
We then learn that this man is already dead and is narrating from the grave. The film moves to video of him fighting and dying nobly with a God-like narrator describing his death, before ending with him once again narrating. Tolchinsky described the film as “unbelievably sophisticated.”
Tolchinsky listed four overarching plot techniques used in these two videos: “the underdog,” a “band of brothers,” “the chosen one,” and “being on time.”
The underdog strategy is aimed at someone living an ordinary life who feels a sense of failure or lack of agency. With motivational words and images, the film suggests that the viewer can join a resilient community that will ultimately prevail against an evil, multinational enemy. The “band of brothers” theme is similar: it uses the positive reassurance that joining ISIS means joining a united, supportive and dedicated group.
If “the underdog” and “the band of brothers” techniques are meant to resolve a feeling of weakness or loneliness with the suggestion of joint victory in fighting for ISIS, the concepts of “the chosen one” and “being on time” are the clinchers meant to make the viewer act.
"There are two kinds of ‘the chosen one’: there is the one who is resistant to being the chosen one and then there’re the one who feels like they were always meant to be the chosen one, but they’re living the wrong life,” said Tolchinsky.
A lot of the stories that use the concepts of “the Hero’s Journey” often start in small towns, where the main character senses that they were meant for something more, before they begin overcoming obstacles to fulfill their potential. The two films Tolchinsky looked at demonstrate this progression, and the idea that it doesn’t matter if you live or die: the fight is worth it.
“Think of Lord of the Rings, think of Star Wars, where the main character feels like they were meant for something greater or is afraid of changing, but learns they were meant for something greater, goes on a journey filled with obstacles and ultimately receives some amazing reward,” said Tolchinsky.
Ultimately, these movies are using techniques prominent and even created in Hollywood filmmaking to criticize the country and culture Hollywood is a part of.
“Throughout the history of war and politics, people have used whatever propaganda techniques they can to convince would-be converts,” Tolchinsky said. “In fact, they’re using their techniques to turn it on itself to make you do the opposite of what Hollywood wants you to do. Don’t underestimate the power of stories.”