Feign of Terror
By Julien Allen
Dir. Chris Morris, U.K., Drafthouse Films
One could have been forgiven for flippantly wondering, when George W. Bush announced in November 2001 that any country harboring terrorists would be held accountable, which British city might be first on the list for U.S. air strikes. Manchester, perhaps? Bradford? Birmingham? Nine U.K. citizens in total have been held at Guantanamo Bay, a fact that, with apologies to Michael Winterbottom and his 2006 documentary Road to Guantanamo, was largely overlooked in the U.K. until the suicide-bomb attacks on London by four British Muslims on July 7, 2005. Without name-checking these events, Four Lions clearly takes its inspiration from the 7/7 bombings and emerges as a ruthless and thought-provoking exposure of British jihadism.
The fact that the film also happens to be a full-on, laugh-out-loud comedy will come as no surprise to followers of Chris Morris, who makes his feature debut with Four Lions. Morris spent the Nineties carving out with scalpel precision his position as Britain’s most notorious satirical prankster, mercilessly skewering broadcast media and entrapping third-rate celebrities into making bewildering public pronouncements on topics such as drugs, AIDS, and pedophilia, by relying purely on their own vanity and vacuity. Shows such as On the Hour, The Day Today (co-produced with In the Loop director Armando Iannucci) and in particular the acerbic masterpiece Brass Eye marked Morris out as the first in a group of one—the totally uncompromising comedy terrorist—a one man Al Qaeda of the Punk’d/Candid Camera subgenre, who made it his avowed mission to violently strike at the heart of the public’s tolerance of institutionalized mediocrity.
With Morris, laughter doesn’t come for free. There are as many layers of comedy in Four Lions (satire, slapstick, wordplay) as there are likely to be different audience reactions to the volatility of the material. When the protagonists are introduced, recording a preposterous video message with a miniature AK-47 in someone’s sitting room, their leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) emerges as the straight man whilst his three cohorts are, despite their clearly defined personalities and backgrounds, plainly imbeciles. What might strike us first is the bravery of ridiculing terrorists in this way—or otherwise, if one considers that terrorists need no more provocation and would presumably rather be underestimated than feared, there might instead be a sense of unease at the trivialization of human suffering and conflict. As the film progresses and settles, and the laughs flow more freely as a result, considerable further discomfort is still to follow. One thing that characterizes all of Morris’s work is its belligerent intellect. He is always an extra step ahead of his audience. Just when you’re laughing loudest, he will find a way to make you suddenly regret it—and as you are coming to terms with the seriousness of a developing scenario, he throws in a devastating belly-laugh-inducing gag to knock you off your guard. For instance, in one scene, a hilarious university debate featuring one of the Lions (converted white cleric Barry, superbly played by Nigel Lindsay) as a controversial panelist, is interrupted by an audience member uncovering a belt full of explosives, which he then proceeds to detonate, letting forth a mass of party streamers before beckoning for applause—here Morris shows himself to be as clever a manipulator of his audiences as he is of his prank victims. (Needless to say, the idiot who pulls this stunt—wannabe rapper Hassan, played by Arsher Ali—is immediately signed up to the Lions’ cause).
Meanwhile, after a brief sojourn for Omar and his closest protégé, Waj (Kavyan Novak, another TV prankster in real life) at a Mujaheddin training camp in Pakistan (which plays out like a Laurel & Hardy short—after one more disastrous pratfall, their captain upbraids them both in nonsubtitled Urdu, ending his vein-popping tirade by bellowing “fucking Mr. Beans!” at them), Omar tries to cover up his humiliation by pretending that an Emir has called them to action—they need to find a target and build a bomb.
The scripted comedy routines that follow these four lions (a play on the heraldic Arms of England—the Three Lions—and the jihadist image of the warrior lion) on their quest for paradise will either tickle you or not (there is something to please or offend everyone—at one point all of them even have to pretend to be gay as cover, much to their own fundamentalist disgust). Amongst all the silliness, though, there resides a palpable sense of credibility. This is not just because of the seriousness of the underlying subject matter, but largely because Morris, who researched the film for four years, interviewing young Muslims in Bradford and Manchester (including one converted white Mancunian who was wrongly imprisoned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act) has taken the trouble to gain a genuine insight into the disaffection which is rife in northern Pakistani communities and the many dimly lit paths to radicalism down which Muslim youths are so easily led. On the one hand he witnessed the ghettoization of both white and Pakistani communities in poorer areas, coupled with the visible lowering of standards in social mores amongst whites, brought about by a culture of binge-drinking and looser attitudes to sex; on the other, the rise in influence of radical Muslim clerics after the West’s reaction to 9/11 and the outlet provided by jihadism to more confident youths with little prospect of societal advancement in this life (only, perhaps, in the next). Almost none of the jokes, however broad, are gratuitous or lazy—they belong to these characters and their predicament, their religion, their prejudices. As we gradually come to terms with our own laughter, we are slowly being sucked into the four lions’ own story. It is noticeable too that it’s not just the bombers who are figures of ridicule, but the police and kufr (infidels) as well.
The comedy is nonetheless uneven—some gags hit the spot (Waj asking “Am I God’s mistake?”) and others are distractingly otiose (Omar seems to be blessed with a unrealistic talent for the overly elaborate insult, precisely like Malcolm Tucker in In the Loop, with which Four Lions tellingly shares two writers). Perhaps the wittiest and most biting aspect of the film is its aesthetic framework, which is as a dead-on spoof of the terribly earnest kitchen sink feel-good Brit film (prototypes: Brassed Off and The Full Monty) in which a group of poor downtrodden outsiders from the North of England painstakingly overcome their doomed predicament to finish in a crowd-pleasing blaze of glory and tears (there’s even a car sing-along scene in Four Lions to “Dancing in the Moonlight”). Except in this case of course, they’re all suicide bombers.
This delectable tastelessness is felt most vividly in the family sequences as Omar describes his struggle to his eight-year-old son at bedtime by referencing the characters in The Lion King, and later Omar’s sweetly supportive wife gives him a solemn pep talk about blowing himself up, just as he is beginning to lose his bottle. These sequences, for being played completely straight, constitute the most troubling (and satisfyingly risqué) humor, partly because of the clarity of Morris’s intention (outside the taboo-busting), which is to exhort our sympathy for the jihadists. This is not because he has a pro-Islamist agenda, but because he deplores the lack of analysis inherent in taking up an obvious position. These people are not malevolent, they are much more dangerous than that—they are morons. And in their vulnerability and helplessness lies their humanity. By the end, even the clownish Waj, who gets stuck in a kebab shop with explosives strapped to his body, trying to convince all the customers (none of whom are kufr) why they need to die, becomes a tragically loveable fool.
The film is much less about politics than it is about morals—in the audience’s case the morality of laughter. Omar’s brother, Ahmed, a devout, peaceful student of the Qur’an, tells Omar (in perhaps the film’s most po-faced anti-Islamist statement) that “joking is a sign of weakness.” Is laughter a moral act? Is it right to “humanize” suicide bombers by making them figures of amusement, in the way Brecht humanized the Nazis in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui? Is it counterproductive or dangerous to trivialize terrorism? Because there is nothing inherently cinematic about Four Lions (like its stable mate In the Loop, it resembles a TV film enlarged to reach a wider audience), and very little politics either, we are left with scores of questions of this kind. It’s as if it isn’t enough to make us laugh—Morris shows us that an appreciation of our own response to jokes outside our comfort zone might just take us a step or two towards our own enlightenment.