The scenic beauty and technical sophistication are chilling. The camera looks down from above – the classic angle of cinematic omnipotence – as 21 pairs of men walk along a beach on the southern Mediterranean, waves breaking on the shore, the sea stretching to the flat horizon. Twenty-one men in orange jump suits, each accompanied by another dressed in black, masked and carrying a machete. Those in orange are Coptic Christians. The others are their ISIS executioners. The film, writes The New York Times, features “slow motion, aerial footage and the quick cuts of a music video. The only sound in much of the background is the lapping of waves.” I cannot bring myself to watch this film – which seems intended as a propaganda piece for ISIS’ power and a recruiting tool for fanatic killers – but the still photos have a concern with artistry and technical virtuosity that give them the aura of a horrific ballet.
The mixture of art and propaganda did not begin with ISIS. Critics called the pathologically dishonest Nazi filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, “an artist of unparalleled gifts” who made “the two greatest films ever directed by a woman.” And D.W. Griffith, whom Charlie Chaplin called “the teacher of us all,” was lionized for The Birth of a Nation, which became a recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan during a time of widespread lynching in the South. But what "artist" could have made this slick documentary that celebrates the beheading of 21 innocent men in orange jump suits?