Four Lions (2010, UK)
Director: Chris Morris Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay, Adeel Akhtar
Chris Morris is no stranger to controversy. From his early forays into tv with The Day Today to the seminal (and hugely provocative) Brasseye and the outrageously corrupt and disturbing Jam he has proven time and time again that he has an instinct for satire that is backed up with enormous brassy balls. He has never been one to shy away from challenging people’s perceptions, particularly the black and white world view often touted by tabloid journalism, something that is evident in abundance in his first full length feature, Four Lions.
Few people would have the nerve to make a film about a four man cell of British Jihadists planning to become martyrs. Fewer still would have the gall to make it a comedy. Even if they did try, I doubt very many would be able to do so with the superb blend of humour and pathos that Morris has achieved here.
It would have been relatively easy to make a farcical comedy about a blundering group of would-be terrorists, fumbling their way through the process of trying to stage a fundamentalist atrocity. There is so much more than that to the film. Granted, the group are pretty hopeless. Omar (Ahmed) is committed to martyrdom and has assembled his cell of like minded fanatics – his incredibly thick best mate Waj (Novak), the mentally infirm Fessal (Akhtar) and the Muslim convert and Zionist conspiracy theorist Barry (Lindsay). They each have their own reasons for seeking martyrdom, all misguided but some more spurious than others.
Morris’ understanding of the psychology of radicalism is evident from the subtlety of the characters. This isn’t Spitting Image. They are all portrayed as human beings, misguided in their beliefs, occasionally self serving but all are looking for a way to be empowered and to make their mark on a world that doesn’t care. He manages to show them in such a way where, while you are never left feeling like you are on their side as terrorists you are able to sympathise with the way they feel about the world. I felt that the depiction of how otherwise quite normal people could be led astray and convinced of the legitimacy of martyrdom was chillingly realistic, showing great insight (not to mention depth of research) on the part of Mr Morris.
The most horrifying aspect of the film is Omar’s relationship with his family. His wife and young son are not just comfortable with his intention to carry out a suicide bombing, they are positively encouraging. It’s openly discussed around the house and incorporated into his young son’s bed time stories. The matter of fact, overwhelming normality of it is genuinely disturbing, not least because it is a realistic rendition of the kinds of radicalised family relationships that breed ideological murderers.
Where Chris Morris proves his worth is that the jokes dovetail neatly with the more horrific elements, never detracting from the poignancy of the story. His message is clear, that the very fact that people feel the need to commit these kinds of acts to feel like they are having an impact on the world is a tragedy. That terrorism is wrong (yes, he is poking fun but that message is completely intact). That causes and ideologies attract the uneducated, dispirited and mentally ill like moths to a flame. There is another message here though. That by giving in to the atmosphere of fear that the media and government are eager to propagate around the globe with regards to terrorism you aren’t helping the problem. It’s much better to hold it up to ridicule and highlight the holes and contradictions in the ideology. Most importantly of all, he has proved beyond doubt that it is possible to make a film that is both amusing and thought provoking around a subject that is highly controversial in a respectful and dignified way. Genius is a strong word, but in this case it definitely applies.