Much media attention has focused on the capabilities of ISIS’s propaganda wing, a smart and decentralized group of well-funded jihadis who have produced one of the most vibrant – and, many say, most effective – bodies of artistic work to emerge from the region in recent memory. Their latest offering, fourth in the “Clanking” franchise, is light years ahead of its predecessors, which, it must be admitted, were little more than videos of ISIS fighting against Assad’s fighters and Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate (Al Qaeda has disavowed ISIS).
“Clanking of Swords IV” (caution – viewer discretion HEAVILY recommended, it is an exceptionally vicious film – and some versions offer “Clanging” instead of “Clanking”) is dedicated to the proposition that only violence can cleanse the Middle East. With the redemptive power of violence as its philosophical center, the film aims to unify those competing narratives of violence we know from YouTube and LiveLeak, the badly-recorded battles wherein people die or are hurt in all the surprising ways one encounters in war.
“Clanking” begins with a geopolitical statement: a zoom-out shot of the Mesopotamian region that ISIS intends to rule. The perspective descends to a quad-copter drone hovering over the city of Falluja. The drone flies over formations of fighters, and lines of pickups and old military 2 ½ ton trucks filled with fighters and heavy-caliber machineguns and staged for attack, then heads back into the sky, at the midway point between four roads, spinning around faster and faster, creating a whirlwind-like effect, which resolves into a battle where ISIS is attacking the Iraqi military. The battle doesn’t last long, and includes the now-obligatory picture of American-style military vehicles under heavy fire, with repeated invocations to Allah. “Clanking’s” introduction then spends time recording some of its fighters delivering speeches, and dedicating themselves to the cause of establishing a super-national caliphate in the region.
From there, the film moves between scenes wherein people renounce their citizenship in various Middle Eastern countries, pledging homage to a new Caliphate by tearing their passports, and various iterations on the theme of battle. ISIS hunts down rival Sunni gangs by conducting drive-by shootings. ISIS hunts down Shia military and intelligence apparatus officers with a special squad dressed like Iraqi Army commanders. Fighters deliver victorious speeches, or inveigle against western influence. ISIS offers clemency to those who convert to the Sunni faith, or turn in their arms. Fighters snipe unsuspecting Iraqi soldiers, detonate IEDs, force prisoners to dig their own graves, tear up more passports. Fighters execute more captured members of the Iraqi military apparatus.
The cinematography is effective, accompanied, unaccountably, by the sound of a sword being sharpened, or possibly unsheathed – and certainly not “clanging” or “clanking.” More on the name of the film later. The cuts between scenes are professional and effective, and particularly devastating IED strikes and checkpoint attacks are rewound and played back in slow motion, creating a response in the viewer that can only be described as enthusiastic expectation. At least, in viewers like myself who are accustomed to scenes of violence, having been to war. Well adjusted viewers should find such scenes horrible, sick, and almost unwatchable.
The point of the film – although historians will likely debate this in years to come, depending on how effective the ISIS brand is in Iraq and Syria – is twofold. First, to create fear in viewers loyal to Iraq and citizens who (according to the point of view of ISIS) collaborated with the regime. Second, to attract new members by demonstrating ISIS fighters’ prowess in battle. The film does both of these things successfully – and it would be successful, I think, whether or not ISIS were especially active on the battlefield, as it is now. The violence is graphic, and real. The killings and attacks are chosen with an eye toward casting their enemies in the most pathetic light possible – in no frame does the Iraqi Army fight back with tenacity, save by implication. Each finishing shot of a battle is triumphal, featuring dead Shia Iraqi soldiers and police, as well as weapons seized. The sniper victims are killed in ways that render them laughable, and there are usually subtitles that ensure viewers interpret the action in a way that is as generous as possible to ISIS.
The subtitles, as well as cut-away scenes narrated by one of the filmmakers, condemn each of the victims, and the government in general. At one point near the end of the film, the group of ISIS soldiers who are hunting down regime “collaborators” enters the home of a “tyrannical” member of the Iraqi counter-terror effort – a colonel. They show pictures of him working with the Americans, and smiling. They then execute him by cutting his head off, and placing it between his legs. He struggles. The film states that “the mujahedeen will not sleep in the face of injustice.”
Overall, the film views like the most extraordinarily violent action movie you’ve ever seen. The filmmakers do an excellent job of capturing scenes using high-quality cameras, and the bloodiest parts are celebrated and revisited throughout the film. It is a meditation on violence and revenge, and it’s impossible to watch the movie without concluding that the events that are happening in the Middle East will not be resolved easily, and are bound to get worse – which boggles the mind – before they get better.
The only weak point in the movie is that whomever translated the movie chose a terrible title. “Clanking of the swords” is ridiculous to western ears, and regardless of the intention – to echo a popular song, or some relevant event from whatever past ISIS seeks to reference – it fails to inspire the same level of dread as the film itself. This wouldn’t merit discussion if the title weren’t stereotypically laughable – the signifier by which people are first introduced to the movie / documentary is absurd, and will only elicit contempt among English-speaking viewers. ISIS would likely claim that Americans and Europeans are not part of their target audience – their audience is people who sympathize with their cause, but haven’t yet picked up a weapon to fight. Calling it the “fourth” installment, and encouraging interested individuals to dig into the recent past of ISIS, before it was a nation-beater, is a further mistake. But perhaps the people who chose the name can be forgiven for catering to jihadis who had already watched the first three “Clanking” videos, and had developed emotional attachments – they probably didn’t expect to go so far, so fast. They couldn’t have expected that America would return to Iraq, giving U.S. soldiers and Air Force pilots an opportunity to make a sequel of their own: “Exploding of the Smart Bombs III.” Coming this July.
Adrian Bonenberger is a freelance journalist, author of the epistolary war memoir “Afghan Post,” and helps run veteran intellectual blog “The Wrath Bearing Tree.” His twitter handle is @AHBonenberger.