For 27-year-old Harry Sarfo from Germany, ISIS propaganda videos were part of what initially attracted him to join the terror group. But as he witnessed one of their propaganda videos being made, he realized it was not the scenario he had imagined and decided to desert.
Since his identity was made public in the New York Times last week, his name is now not only known to the secret services, but to the entire American and German public. An interview conducted with Sarfo in English, inside the high-security prison in Bremen, made it into the international press when his connections with the Islamic State’s Secret Service in Syria came to light.
The organization responsible for attacks and known as Emni in Arabic had planned for the self-proclaimed holy warrior from Bremen to be sent back to his homeland after training, to serve as a sleeper agent. They no longer needed Europeans in Syria, instead future assassins in Germany. Only in passing were the videos mentioned in the media.
According to Sarfo, who was born in England and later raised in Germany, the ISIS propaganda videos were part of what motivated him to join the holy war in Syria. There, during his training, he was approached by other German insurgents, who asked him to appear in a German propaganda video. That was the beginning of the end of his career as a terrorist; a pursuit which had held the promise of culminating in a paradise of lush green gardens, filled with delights and never-aging virgins.
In his interview with the New York Times, Sarfo states that it was during these filming sessions that the reality of it all hit him. Back in Germany as he watched the terror group’s videos, he had always assumed the scenes to be “real”.
The video Sarfo participated in is still floating around on the Internet. His task as an actor was simple: In the location of Palmyra, he had to march past the camera brandishing a black ISIS flag. But to Sarfo’s surprise, the director made him repeat the scene several times. Only after endless takes were the cameramen satisfied with his performance. Later on, they filmed as German ISIS militants shot dead Syrian prisoners. In his interview, Sarfo recounts how the prisoners were forced to kneel down on the ground. After the execution the crew went on to debate whether the killing and the killers looked “good enough” on camera. When Sarfo understood how may retakes it took for a five-minute video, he started to question his commitment to the organization and decided to flee. After weeks of planning he managed to escape into Turkey. Harry Sarfo was arrested on the 20th July 2015 at Bremen Airport as he re-entered Germany.
Despite YouTube, far from reality
However his remarkably odd definition of “authenticity” isn’t the only shocking thing. Equally distressing is the fact that a German adult in this day and age – with YouTube and endless hours of media coverage at his fingertips – still believes everything that happens in front of a camera to be real. The prison authorities, as well as the German Secret Service, consider the deserters statements to be trustworthy.
The power of the moving image is undeniable. But not only in the case of propaganda videos would the world benefit from being a little less trusting of film and video.
Would this in any way diminish the power of the moving image? No! Film and video can, shall, may and must be powerful driving forces. But no more than that.
Impossible without a good head on your shoulders
Seeing and thinking don’t contradict one another. Just because I see a toothpaste advert on TV, doesn’t mean I’m forced to believe that this toothpaste will change my life. But I can appreciate the impulse – which cleverly numbs my senses for the duration of 30 seconds – as an incentive to contemplate what I have seen, for the duration I see fit. Perhaps I then choose to look it up online. I might read a test report and eventually even end up purchasing the product to test it.
If the great thinkers of enlightenment had still been around 144 years ago, when film was invented, it would be fascinating to know their thoughts on the power of the moving image. Because that’s what it’s about and where film essentially draws a parallel to life itself. Without a good head on our shoulders, nothing is possible. At least in this respect the radical henchmen in black might agree with us infidels.