Four Lions

When I saw this film, in an almost empty cinema, there were a couple sitting behind us who laughed loudly at practically everything anyone said throughout the screening. They were obviously stoned out of their brains. It was very irritating. So if I underestimate how funny this film is, then that’s why.
Four Lions, Chris Morris’ “terrorist movie”, has been gossiped about for a long time. There was talk of him putting in a great deal of research before writing it; attending lectures, speaking to various experts and ordinary Muslims, while making fun of Martin Amis’ ignorance along the way. There were also rumours that the film, because of its subject matter, was having difficulty getting backers. I think it’s more likely that the time it took to come to cinemas is more of a reflection of how hard it is to make films in Britain, especially films that aren’t cheap Hollywood copies, or financed by Hollywood itself.

Four Lions is a quiet tragedy with jokes. We know and the terrorists know that they are going to die, but like them we find, at the actual moment of their deaths, that the shock isn’t lessened by this foreknowledge. The contentious issues that are the centre of most debates on Islamic terrorism; the role of women in Islamic society, the oppression, violence, ineptitude and cover-ups of the police, the “madness” and “brainwashing” behind terrorism as a political act are all subtly embedded, in order to move beyond two-dimensional platitudes and present a portrait of human beings who have decided that terrorism is their only option. We don’t see their radicalisation, we don’t follow them on their path to a decision. Instead we see a poignant farce that is their stumble towards suicide bombing.
There is still a subdued allegorical nature to this portrait, however. The key scene for me is when the group are in their van on the motorway, driving to the marathon – to their deaths, in fact – and they’re listening to Dancing in the Moonlight at top volume while singing along. Their enthusiasm for a song that couldn’t possibly be less cool marks them as innocents. Barry shakes his head at them for comic effect, but also it illustrates that he is not an innocent. Omar, the leader, seems to be willing himself to be innocent, to follow his heart, rather than his head, as he often says. This gets at the core of the dynamic between the four, and to something of a message, if there is one. That people will look for a message in a film like this is inevitable and Chris Morris makes a good job of never simplifying things to that level. However, if there is a message it’s that most terrorists are frustrated and powerless people who blow themselves up, taking other powerless people with them, for revenge and glory that can only ever be symbolic. Barry, the white convert, represents the ideology behind the move from frustration to terrorism. He is the Western ideology at the heart of Islamic terrorism.

The song is important because it shows these British Muslims engaging with something very Western, but in a way that’s “wrong”. Terrorism is a very Western concept; it relies on the idea of individual freedom. The Toploader song, by current Western logic, should be a perfectly reasonable song to listen to; it’s popular, catchy, it sold a lot of copies, it’s a song about hedonism, the singer has a cod American accent and it’s inoffensively retro. Except it isn’t perfectly reasonable to listen to – non-ironically at least – and for arbitrary reasons. Reasons as arbitrary as the ones Western powers use to justify bombing civilians in the name of freedom while condemning Muslims for bombing civilians in the name of freedom. Barry, who thinks their jihad should be to bomb a mosque, demonstrates the paranoia and spiteful egoism behind individual liberty at the expense of a collective project, at the expense of solidarity.
The mood of the film is a departure from Morris’ usual style; more naturalistic, sympathetic and with less of the exaggerated language he often employs. Morris himself appears at the end of the film in voiceover, doing a now familiar impersonation of the crassness of TV journalism. This is the only instance of the type of satire that people most associate with Morris. The reason that the rest of the film doesn’t impersonate news media reporting in this way is that the version of events given by the news media is one we all know, one that doesn’t need to be retold, not yet at least. It is also in many ways beyond satire. Things don’t get much more ridiculous than secret, hollowed-out, Bond villain-style mountain lairs, just one of the many instances of ludicrous propaganda that the news media, in the US and the UK, reported to us in all seriousness as fact.

Morris has gone to great lengths to make a film that doesn’t portray a cartoon version of Muslims. Perhaps the likes of the Daily Mail would call this “political correctness gone mad”, but, on the contrary, Chris Morris’ thoughtful efforts strip away the media-madness and takes things down to a more human level. That Morris has bothered to do his research, has bothered find out about Islam, about British Muslims and about Islamic terrorism means that he can build on that knowledge to create an intelligent film that finds humour in the bumbling nature of terrorists and anti-terrorists alike. At a time when British Muslims feel under attack from the rest of British society, this level of engagement is very important. While much of the research will of course remain under the surface of the film, the work will be appreciated by everyone tired of the crass stereotypes and ill-informed assumptions of recent years. A reflection of this would be that even in the sparsely attended screening I saw the film at, the majority of the audience, including the stoner couple, were Muslims.
One thing about this film is that, while there are some laugh-out-loud moments, it’s not first and foremost a devastating satire – in terms of laughs and critique – in the mold of Morris’ previous work like Brasseye. In fact, it’s probably closer to Jam in that it’s more about mood than the carnivalesque, just less surreal. Nor is it a political polemic against the ignorant crusaders fighting “islamofascism”. Instead, the film is “merely” the first sensible portrayal of radicalised British Muslims and a sad and funny elegy to their mistakes.