Set City

The documentation immediately transformed the incident into a global media news sensation.

Real Transience of the Protagonist at the Execution Film Set

By Khaled Ramadan

Published in: Border Thinking. Disassembling Histories of Racialized Violence.

On December 19, 2016, the art world witnessed a remarkably dramatic event when the gunman Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, during his speech at the opening of the photo exhibition “Russia through Turk’s Eyes” at the Contemporary Art Center in Ankara.[1] Two Turkish photographers and a videographer, Yavuz Alatan, Hasim Kilic, and Burhan Ozbilici, captured the assassination in progress, before, during, and after the incident, making the assassination of Karlov the first ambassador to be shut on ultra HD-video.[2]

In the video of the assassination, Karlov can be seen collapsing to the floor after the third shot fired by Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the policeman accused of killing the Russian ambassador. The camera then zooms out from close-up to wide angle, framing the assassin and the assassinated in one picture, including a number of the artworks exhibited on the walls. Remarkably, there was no trace of blood anywhere at the crime scene in the video or any of the photos. Nevertheless, the multiple angle documentation immediately transformed the incident into a global media news sensation to become one of the most watched online videos of the year, competing with other similar videos of a similar brutal nature.

This type of dramatic video release has become a new visual genre, and despite their graphic content they receive millions of clicks online and keep attracting the attention of the media as well as the general public. In the aftermath of the assassination, Alatan posted his photos on social media. A few days after he said, “I wish this hadn’t happened, and I hadn’t taken those photos.”[3] Perhaps Alatan noted how his photos entered the mass culture category of visual violence and how he unconsciously risked promoting this brutal genre of visualization.

The Atmospheric Execution Film Set—Between Fiction, Documentary, Post-snuff Film, and Reality Cinema

One of the “masterpieces” of this category of visual violence entered the public realm with the release of the gruesome execution video of the Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh,[4] whose plane came down in Raqqa, Syria, during a mission against the Islamic State (ISIS) in December 2015.

The captured pilot was placed in a metal cage and filmed while being burned alive. Al-Kasasbeh’s horrific atmospheric execution set was described by many commentators as a highly sophisticated cinematic production, exhibiting high technical capabilities in terms of visual narrative, and signifying a departure from the familiar videos made by jihadist organizations over the past ten years. Most published articles in both Arab and Western media about Al-Kasasbeh’s execution were descriptive and nonanalytic, politically contextualizing the act while rapidly acknowledging and embracing ISIS’s filmmaking skills.

Since the “spectacular” film was released by ISIS, we did not see a similar production by this or any other group. However, analyzing the technicality and conceptuality of the film, we can confidently say it was a low-budget film, made by ordinary contemporary videographers who—like many good film amateurs—know the rule of depths and angles, and the process of pursuing an expressive directorship ranging from attention to the visual detail to the montage of a persuasive narrative.

However, despite the use of ordinary film principles, the film of Al-Kasasbeh did add a new classification to the motion-picture history as it maneuvered between fiction, snuff film, and documentary film. The film depicts the fictional practice that is implemented by a wide range of field professionals with one small difference—the conclusion results in a real homicide.

Execution footage and images of violent nature were made public from the onset of cinema, starting with Thomas Edison, the inventor of the motion-picture camera, who electrocuted/executed the elephant Topsy in 1903, as described in the book Killing for Culture by David Kerekes and David Slater.[5] About a century later, depicting murderous executions at a film set is now real, like in the case of ISIS’s film, shot with 4K equipment, scripted, and efficiently edited to be made available online for political purposes.

That does not mean that ISIS’s film brought about a new filming technique, yet the film did expand the political propaganda film genre. It introduced a new era in the film arena—a contemporary category of violent visualization that challenges any given Hollywood production, mondo, snuff film movie, or “shockumentary film aesthetics,” which are commonly produced for profit, while ISIS’s film was strictly produced for political propaganda and for recruitment.
Filmed in Ultra HD, ISIS’s film—with the real death of the protagonist at the execution set—gave birth to a new notion of political propaganda production, which I call “reality cinematography.”

Nonetheless, the amount of embracement and professionalism accredited to the ISIS film has been much larger than the film itself can take. It is therefore awkward that some commentators and filmmakers called it “stunning and shocking,”[6] while others were overwhelmed by the tight scenario and sequential scenes. Others were impressed by the long, medium, and short clips from multiple angles of the event, and the combination of fast and slow scenes to highlight the ugliness of the burning process.

In this context, a few questions remain to be answered. Who benefits from the embracement of this type of violent production, and by boosting this type of film, even in terms of technicalities, do we not risk sending a wrong signal to its producers to publish more?

In response to the video of Al-Kasasbeh, political and media commentator Chauncey DeVega published a 2015 article in the Daily Kos titled: “Yes, ISIS Burned a Man Alive: White Americans Did the Same Thing to Thousands of Black People.”[7] In the article, DeVega argues that violence is a human trait and that we cannot overlook what he calls the “violence master classes” undertaken in the United States during slavery time. DeVega’s article draws parallels between ISIS’s video and the practice of the “unique violence ritual,” the lynching of African Americans, and how images of black people who were burned to death was a form of mass culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America.[8] The violent past of lynching has continued to deepen the rift in American society between blacks and whites, resulting in one shared history with two different narratives. I shall return to DeVega’s argument later, but will first will analyze ISIS’s video.

Involuntarily Acting—Performance X

The well-researched twenty-two minutes-long propaganda film is in Arabic with English subtitles.[9] Its execution set is carefully designed and well-studied as if every scene is done according to a script. It starts with a voice reading a propaganda statement with justification arguments. Accompanying it is a photomontage and archival footage from different wars in the Middle East showing casualties and suffering. The subsequent sequence shows an interview with the captive pilot dressed in an orange outfit, similar to that worn by the prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.[10] Toward the end, the sequence closes in the morning, showing the pilot in his orange jumpsuit alone, carefully and silently walking and wondering among the rubble of bombed houses, checking the site and carnage most likely caused by missile strikes carried out by the pilot himself, as indicated by the narrator. He faces the location for the first time, not from a bird’s eye view but from a human level. The pilot involuntarily performs his last march through the scenery toward the cage. The galvanized black metal cage is closed with no sign of a door. The relatively small cube-shaped cage is constructed in a way that will prevent the pilot from running freely inside it.

The sandy floor of the cage is soaked with gasoline and an X shape stretching from corner to corner is engraved in the sand. Most likely, the pilot was forced to stand in the middle of the X mark. Outside the cage, a long line is engraved in the sand. At the end of it a masked militant is carrying a torch. Surrounding the scenery is a group of well-organized masked militants dressed and armed in identical costumes and military gear, signifying the authority of an army and not paramilitaries.

Accompanied by real sound, the last sequence is quietly played in slow motion. The pilot inside the cage covers his face with his hands. In a jump cut, he suddenly removes his hands and looks directly into the lens and sees that the line in the sand is on fire, ignited by the militant. The flame approaches the cage signifying the gripping climax of the film. Accompanied by melodic voices, the pilot is burned to death. After that, a bulldozer throws a large amount of rubble on the cage with the dead pilot is inside it, signifying what airstrikes do to people: burn them alive and bury them under the rubble. It is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” effect. The End. Black screen, logos, and abstract credits.

Regardless of the result and horrific methodology of the film, no one has presented a killing/execution film set with such cinematographic style before. In terms of technicality perhaps it is the most well-made propaganda film known to the public.


“The Last Day” Documenting My Life, My Art, and My Plan

A not exactly similar but notable reference of violent testimonial video in our digital age is the video diary The Last Day by Ricardo López,[11] who is a known stalker of the Icelandic singer Björk.[12] Over a nine-month period, López, the twenty-one-year-old Uruguayan-American visual artist made a seventy-hour video diary at his Florida apartment, wherein he mused about Björk while experimenting with letter bombs intended to kill the singer on the very same day he would commit suicide, so that their souls could meet in heaven. López decorated his apartment with a meticulous scenography, transforming it into a spooky killing film set. The scenery seemed like a visual statement, full of handwritings, banners, colors, and face makeup.

On September 12, 1996, López sent the package bomb to Björk’s house in London. He then returned home, delivered his final video testimony and filmed his own suicide. He shot himself in the mouth. Four days later López’s body was discovered at his apartment together with the seventy hours of video testimony he recorded. His video diary was to document, in his words, “My life, my art, and my plan,” a statement written on one of López’s videotapes. His violent video was a comprehensive performance testimony, written, directed, and played by López himself. As predicted, his message did not go unnoticed. It was received worldwide, distributed, and even sold by local FBI authorities to whomever wished to pay for a copy of the tapes.[13]

Although he was disconnected from reality, López was conscious about what to deliver to the public and he knew exactly how to lure the media into his trap. Filming his own death on tape was enough to capture public attention—López’s mission was accomplished from day one. Both López’s suicide film and ISIS’s execution film were produced with solid knowledge of the outcome—their films would be seen and heard, exactly as similar previous productions known to human visual history. López’s and ISIS’s films make up just a few of the many documentations of horrific events that mankind has witnessed.

The Lynching of African-Americans’ “Festivities” and the Mass Media of the Time

As stated in DeVega’s article, the gruesome reality of the so-called spectacular lynching is another example of an execution setting, which was also photo documented, as described in W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s book Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880‒1930.[14] Based on photography and history, Brundage describes how people cheered and children played during the lynching of African-Americans.[15] For example, when James Irwin was lynched on January 31, 1930, after being accused of the murder of a white girl in the town of Ocilla, Georgia, he was taken into custody by a rampaging mob, his fingers and toes were cut off, his teeth pulled out by pliers and finally he was castrated. Irwin was then burned alive in front of hundreds of onlookers.[16]

The lynching of African-Americans were documented for different purposes to aestheticize lynching for a variety of motives, including for political reasons. The lynching events were photographed, exhibited, shared, printed and distributed as postcards and posters.[17] Although the horrific visual documentation will continue to haunt Americans and the rest of human society, as explained by DeVega, humanity has yet to learn how to deal with these visual experiences.

The Chronic Voyeuristic Relation and the Attitude of Anti-intervention

Leading American theoretician Susan Sontag wrote intensely on the consequences on the human mind of images of brutal nature, starting with the lynching festivities. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others,[18] Sontag confirms that humanity has not learned much since the spectacular lynching of African-Americans because the proliferation of horrific politicized photographic images established within people a “chronic voyeuristic relation”: the more people are exposed to violent visuals, the more it fosters in them an attitude of anti-intervention.

Unquestionably, there will always be a dispute as to whether such images should be removed from public display in museum collections due to their graphic nature. However, the risk that they may become a source of inspiration will always exist, like in the case of the photo documentation of lynching-like situations involving captives imprisoned by American military forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003/4.[19] Some of the photos from Abu Ghraib physically and aesthetically depict, almost paraphrase, lynching situations of the African-Americans in the United States,[20] with one small difference: the Abu Ghraib images were not meant to be published.

For years, individuals who work with human visual history and visuality, like myself, have often asked why such gruesome images do not play a significant role in helping humanity reduce situations of violence, torture, or execution, regardless of the context they have been produced, used, archived, or exhibited in.[21] How can we use or consume these visual representations for learning and for building awareness without falling into the political propagandist trap of their producers? Some of us are determined to look at these visual representations from different and critical perspectives, trying to analyze and reconceptualize them concurrently with contemporary history, ethics, and aesthetics, concocting a more constructive discourse. In this regard, here comes some sort of a closure, though not a definite answer.

In June 2015, Australian composer Christopher de Groot and theatre-opera director Suzanne Chaundy received funding from Creative Victoria to develop a one-voice opera,[22] based on the video diaries of Ricardo López.[23] The question that imposes itself is whether such a production will overcome the tendency to aestheticize videos of brutal nature as the attempt here is to generate an attitude of mass-intervention and to change the notion of “the more you watch, the less you feel.”

This is certainly not The End.



abc NEWS. “Inside the Mind of a Celebrity Stalker.” abc NEWS, December 11, 1996. Accessed December 21, 2016.

Ackerman, Elliot. “Russia through Turks’ Eyes.” Atlantic, December 20, 2016.

Allen James, ed. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twin Palms Publishers, 1999.

Apel, Dora. “Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib.” Art Journal 64, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 88‒100.

BBC News. “Jordan Pilot Hostage Moaz al-Kasasbeh ‘Burned Alive.’” BBC News, February 3, 2015.

Björk. Björk. New York: Bloomsbury, 2001.

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880‒1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

C, Jay. “The Video Diary of Ricardo López,” Documentary Blog, January 15, 2007.

Charlton, Corey. “Anti-ISIS Activists Use Horrific Jihadi Propaganda Film to Claim Brutal Militants Executed Hundreds of Children.” Mail Online, November 9, 2015.

DeVega, Chauncey. “Yes, ISIS Burned a Man Alive: White Americans Did the Same Thing to Thousands of Black People.” Daily Kos, February 5, 2015.

Gado, Mark. “Carnival of Death: Lynching in America.” Abibitumi Kasa, February 9, 2015.

Hansen, Jonathan M. Guantánamo: An American History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.

Hersh, Seymour M. “Torture at Abu Ghraib.” New Yorker, May 10, 2004.

Joumaa, Awad, and Khaled Ramadan. Outsourcing Torture. An Al Jazeera English Investigation Documentary, produced in 2015.

Katz, Andrew. “Three Photographers Witnessed an Assassination: One Photo Went Viral.” Time, December 21, 2016.

Kerekes, David, and David Slater. Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff. ‪London: Creation Books: 1995.

Nguyen, Tina. “Syrian Filmmakers Portray the Quiet Evil of ISIS.” The Hive (Vanity Fair blog), November 30, 2015.

Raper, Arthur Franklin. The Tragedy of Lynching. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

Saif, Sami. The Video Diary of Ricardo López. Documentary film produced by NewCom Entertainment and Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Denmark 2000.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2004.

Sutfin, Heather. “The Final Days of Ricardo López: The Opera.” Sword and Scale, May 10, 2016.

“Muath Al-Kasasbeh.” Wikipedia. Last modified December 15, 2016.

[1] Elliot Ackerman, “Russia through Turks’ Eyes,” Atlantic, December 20, 2016.

[2] Andrew Katz, “Three Photographers Witnessed an Assassination: One Photo Went Viral,” Time, December 21, 2016, Similar case of media sensation took place in the same month of December 2016, with the murder of the Greek ambassador to Brazil Kyriakos Amiridis by his wife Francoise de Souza Oliveira and her lover policeman Sergio Gomez Moreira. See Rory Mulholland, “Greek Ambassador to Brazil Murdered by Wife’s Police Lover, Officials Say,” Telegraph, December 31, 2016,

[3] Cited in Katz, “Three Photographers Witnessed an Assassination.”

[4] “Jordan Pilot Hostage Moaz al-Kasasbeh ‘burned alive,’” BBC News, February 3, 2015.

[5] David Kerekes and David Slater, Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff (‪London: Creation Books, 1995). See the 2008 film Snuff: A Documentary about Killing on Camera, YouTube video, 1:16:05, posted by “Alex Ivan,” February 8, 2016.

[6] Corey Charlton, “Anti-ISIS Activists Use Horrific Jihadi Propaganda Film to Claim Brutal militants Executed Hundreds of Children,” Mail Online, November 9, 2015,

[7] Chauncey DeVega, “Yes, ISIS Burned a Man Alive: White Americans Did the Same Thing to Thousands of Black People,” Daily Kos, February 5, 2015,

[8] Ibid.

[9] The video used to be viewable online, but now this and similar videos are being removed.

[10] Jonah Bennett: “US Official Says ISIS Uses Orange Jumpsuits Because Of Guantanamo”, The Daily Caller, February 5, 2015,

[11] Jay C, “The Video Diary of Ricardo López,” Documentary Blog, January 15, 2007, See also

“Inside the Mind of a Celebrity Stalker,” abc NEWS, December 11, 1996,

[12] See for instance, Björk, Björk (New York: Bloomsbury, 2001).

[13] Danish filmmaker Sami Saif bought all the tapes from FBI to be used in his film chronicling the last days of the life of Ricardo López. This information was shared at a lecture held by Saif at Copenhagen Documentary Film School, in January 2006. See also the documentary film by Saif, The Video Diary of Ricardo López, NewCom Entertainment, and DR TV, Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Denmark (2000).

[14] W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

[15] Mark Gado, “Carnival of Death: Lynching in America,” Abibitumi Kasa, February 9, 2015,

[16] Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 143.

[17] See, for instance, Arthur Franklin Raper, The Tragedy of Lynching (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933); and James Allen, ed., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twin Palms Publishers, 1999).

[18] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2004).

[19] Seymour M. Hersh, “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” New Yorker, May 10, 2004,

[20] Dora Apel, “Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib,” Art Journal 64, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 88‒100.

[21] Awad Joumaa and Khaled Ramadan, Outsourcing Torture, an Al Jazeera English Investigation Documentary, produced in 2015; see

[22] Creative Victoria is a government body dedicated to supporting, championing, and growing the state’s creative industries, spanning arts, culture, screen, and design. See

[23] See Heather Sutfin, “The Final Days of Ricardo López: The Opera,” Sword and Scale, May 10, 2016.