Sunday, 7 October 2018

Black Crows (Night's Black Agents)

Black Crows, a terrorist-theme drama created by Dubai-based MBC Group, tells the story of civilians sucked into the orbit of ISIS and forced to participate in terrorist operations. Most of the commentary I've read so far says it focuses on women's stories, but I'm now seven episodes in and if by 'women's stories' you mean 'women get approximately a third of the screen time' then yes, these are women's stories. Mind you, the whole thing is 24 half-hour episodes long so there's time yet.

It's an oddly compelling narrative. The ISIS top brass are portrayed as scheming, cheating, ultimately irreligious hypocrites, from the religious leader who uses a mirror to spy on women bathing, to the children's brigade boss who abuses his authority to have sex with the boys under his care. Even the Emir in charge, probably the most faithful and sincere of the lot and determined to die for the cause, sooner rather than later, has skeletons in his closet. In that respect it's not unlike HBO's Rome, or Deadwood, where even the best have feet of clay. The difference being these are actively evil people with no redeeming characteristics, rather than ambitious would-be Caesars.

Typical of this is a Mufti moment spread over episodes 5 and 6. The Mufti goes to a factory owner making hallucinogenic drugs for sale to unbelievers. The factory boss offers the Mufti a bribe so the Mufti will issue a fatwa that allows him to sell his drugs to Muslims. The Mufti accepts the bribe and then makes a deal with the religious leader. The Mufti will report the bribe to the Emir. The Emir will insist the religious leader kill the factory owner. The religious leader will say he's worried about the dead man's wives, children, and the factory, which might under new ownership sell to Muslims anyway. The Mufti expects the religious leader to insist the Mufti take over the factory, but in the heat of the moment the religious leader takes the factory for himself, earning the Mufti's displeasure.

It's all dealt with in pretty much that way. "I am doing something wicked. Help me do this wicked thing." "I shall! Praise God!" [betrayal.] "Curse you!" It lacks Rome's subtlety, but it has an energy and conviction you don't often see.

By the way, don't think of the above as a spoiler. The plot races from point to point. Faces come and go, plot points come and go. When an episode is only 30 minutes long and you've a lot to do, things like subtlety and character development are sacrificed.

The new intake is a mix of idiots, the deluded and the desperate, from the wife who murdered her philandering husband and fled with the children, to the two high school dropouts who think being Call of Duty champions makes them ideal candidates for martyrdom. Some are sincere, like the surgeon who thinks he's doing what his dying father would have wanted. Sprinkled in the mix are double agents trying to spy on this ISIS cell.

One of the main recurring faces is Abu Omar, a religious teacher who has volunteered so he can find his daughter, who he believes has been inducted into this ISIS camp. He's the narrator who kicks off the action in the first episode, and he sometimes bookends episodes with wise commentary on what happened or is about to happen. He's clearly meant to be the conscience of the series, the one who preaches truth while everyone else lies. He's not your typical hero, being stout and well past the age when parkour is an option, but this is a battle for souls, and for that you need a genuine man of God.

The cast of thousands is a problem. I honestly couldn't tell you who half the cast are, because they never appear on screen for much more than 60 seconds at a time before yielding the spotlight to someone else. Only the most eccentric characters stick in the mind; everyone else blurs. Is that the former dancer? The prisoner? The officer? The this, that, other, tinker, tailor, soldier, martyr? I thought he was dead - no, that was someone who looked like him for 30 seconds two episodes ago. That severed head dropped dramatically on the floor - whose was it?

But then I'm not watching this the way it's supposed to be watched. I'm seeing one, maybe two episodes at a stretch, and I'm meant to be binging the entire series - twelve hours worth of content.

Saudi-owned MBC Group is the world's first private free-to-air Arabic language television network. It specializes in family-friendly material, which means its most extreme content is mid-range action movies and tv shows like Bones, Supernatural and Divergent. Black Crows is a significant departure from its usual lineup, and its anti-extremist polemic is partly the result of extended cooperation with the US State Department.

It's not subtle. When not delivering a very clear message about corrupt extremist groups, it's bathing in gore. But it has a very specific audience in mind: Arabs during Ramadan.

Ramadan is an annual month-long religious observance, one of the five pillars of Islam, in which the faithful are enjoined to refrain from eating, drinking, and sinful behavior of any kind from sunrise to sunset. It's a time for reflection, good deeds and charity - and watching television. Musalal like these are consumed by an eager viewing public who, after sunset, break fast and binge-watch the latest prime-time goodness. No doubt if I had waited the entire day thinking about the last episode I'd watched, or binged several episodes in one go, I'd have a much better idea who was who. It would also help my understanding of the rapid-fire plot.

Yet even though I'm not the audience and am finding it a struggle to watch, I respect Black Crows. It's an Arabic story told by Arabs - less about Islam, more about a civil war fostered by extreme distress. Abu Omar makes this very clear many times; ISIS does not represent Islam.

It has its flaws. The action takes place in an Iraqi ISIS stronghold, yet the story skips over why Iraq and Syria became ideal nurseries for this kind of militancy. Nor does it really explore why people are attracted to ISIS's message. It's difficult to deny the criticism that this is a polemic intended in part to please the US State Department and flatter Western, particularly Hollywood, watchers.

I mentioned Deadwood and Rome. The one thing Al Swearengen and Julius Caesar have in common is that they're both long dead. It's easier to be detached about them, to present a subtle dissection of their flaws and achievements. Perhaps that was always impossible for Black Crows, just as it would have been impossible to make Apocalypse Now, Platoon or The Deer Hunter in 1970. The actors in Black Crow are still getting death threats; one of the major expenses for the producers was security, to stop their shoot being blown up or their people assassinated.

I'd recommend this to anyone interested in current events, but Dracula Dossier and Night's Black Agents Directors may find it useful. Particularly if you think of this ISIS cell as a Node; this is how a Node functions, and falls apart.


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