The Believers Are But Brothers at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: an ambitious, cinematic exploration of the modern online landscape
Part theatre, part lecture, and part immersive experience, The Believers are But Brothers is a superlatively impressive examination of online radicalisation. Javaad Alipoor’s astonishingly accomplished show is able to explain, with compassion, the reasons which drive people towards extreme acts whilst simultaneously theorising on the increasing polarisation of political stances across the world.
When we enter the show, we’re asked for our phone numbers and are added to a WhatsApp group chat – this is probably the only show at the Fringe where you’re supposed to keep your mobile on, volume up and in front of you. At times, The Believers are but Brothers takes place over our phones, at others Alipoor talks politics, and at others still he relays a story about three extremists – two Muslims living in England and a frustrated white teenager living in the States. Alipoor skilfully draws links between his characters: two similar people drawn to radical action for very different reasons; two very different people drawn to radical action for the same reason. All are misled, though we’re able to understand exactly why they’re misled and, in some way, adopt their perspectives.
Alipoor’s thesis, if you can call it that, is that an opinion ‘grey zone’ – where beliefs are moderate and believers are tolerant of other beliefs – is being eroded by men on the internet, who use the power of the online space to drive increasing polarisation. “You’re either with us”, Bush says on the TV, “or with the terrorists” – that statement sets an eerie precedent for the very division we see today.
As a 21-year-old who grew up with the internet, most of this is familiar to me – online radicalisation, peer to peer encryption, terrorist usage of Telegram, 4chan, Discord, gamergate, Reddit – but I was easily the youngest person at the show this morning. For those who struggle to understand the virtual echo chamber that powers modern politics, The Believers Are But Brothers is an incredible dissection of group dynamics, causes and effects.
Admittedly, for that audience, Alipoor’s scaremongering will also be lapped up in a way that’s probably not all too conducive to a productive, connected world. In sum total, The Believers are But Brothers is defiantly anti-internet, ending with an (it has to be said, impressive) trick using WhatsApp that bemoans the ways in which interpersonal relationships have crumbled under digital stress. For a group of people who already spend loads of time on their phones, the message is an important one, but for a demographic who are barely able to use WhatsApp, this is just one more confirmation that the internet is loud, dangerous, and here to hurt you.
The WhatsApp conceit is admirably risky, because it relies on a well-behaved audience to keep the show on the rails. Unfortunately, at several points we ran into frustrating issues with it: at key emotional moments, people would message the chat saying ‘please add [phone number]’ because their friends had been silly and had accidentally left the group – everyone’s phones light up and buzz in unison, which is a pretty big distraction. At other points, a ridiculously annoying liberal American audience member repeatedly asked questions (such as ‘what is a ‘libtard’?’) and virtue-signalled on the chat towards content that had clearly been pre-generated for the show and wasn’t supposed to be discussed. It was so distracting that I almost leaned over and asked him to stop.
Still, when it works it really works, combining the spellbinding potential of a good story well told with the intellectual stimulation of a university lecture (this is, after all, a piece which takes place in a university lecture theatre) and the cinematic scope of a blockbuster movie. Towards the end of the show, not only does it reach for genuine emotion (remarkable given how constructed and formalistic Alipoor’s setup is), but also for some truly cinematic scope. As the three narratives converge, audio and projections take over for a cathartic finale that really hammers home the real-life effects that can stem from virtual causes.
At at time where online radicalisation is one of the biggest issues we face in the world, and one of the biggest motivators in the political sphere, it’s important for people to understand and be aware of the driving forces for oppressive policies and actions. In that respect, then, The Believers but Brothers is a fantastic success: an ambitious, cinematic exploration of ideological collapse that’s as entertaining as it is provocative.