“Four Lions” (2010): the First Time as Terror, the Second Time as Comedy? by Mahmut Mutman

 

Can terrorism be depicted or represented in a comic way? Any such attempt would be risky, to say the least. Chris Morris’s Four Lions (2010) takes the risk. And despite the boycotting by the families of the victims of 7 July 2005 London Bombings, it received high praise from the critics: “a cheerful, scornful black caper about extra-stupid suicide bombers” (Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian); “best film about Islamic terrorists … pitch-black satire” (Sophie Gilbert in the Atlantic). On the Internet site Critical Muslim, Claire Chambers gives a fine summary of the plot:

It is the story of the five would-be martyrs, who are soon reduced to four after their bomb-making specialist, Fessal, trips over a sheep and blows up. The remaining jihadis are led by Omar, the brightest member of the group and the only one shown to have a family and steady employment. His followers are the public school ‘wannabe’ Hassan (‘the Mal’) Malik; Omar’s best friend, Waj, who is described in the script as being twenty year old ‘and built like a fridge’; and the white convert Barry, the closest thing the film has to George W. Bush’s description of ‘pure evil’. Following Omar’s and Waj’s ignominious militant training in Afghanistan (which is actually filmed in Andalucía) and various argument and rifts, the group decides to stage suicide bombing at the London Marathon. The attack don’t go to plan, and what begins as a hilarious sequence of accidental detonation set piece becomes a chilling and thought-provoking reflection of what happens when an intense combination of religion, politics, and friendship spiral out of control.

The movie makes numerous references to real events and real terrorists, but this is a kind of referencing which aims to undo its object. It can be read as the key to the narrative strategy and moral message of the film. Chambers gives two major examples. The first one is a conversation, in which Omar mentions a certain “stupid nutter Muslim, who blows a bagful of nails into his own guts.” This seems to be a reference to Saeed Alim, who injured himself by his homemade nailbomb in Exeter in 2008—a direct reference to the failure and stupidity of terrorism. The second example is a better instance of the film’s narrative strategy: the kind of video our “four lions” recorded prior to the attack is common practice in jihadist terrorism. Chambers reminds us more specifically Muhammad Sidiq Khan’s famous video broadcast on Al-Jazeera several months after the London bombings in 2007, for both Khan in his video and Waj in the film have a common statement: “I am going to talk to you in a language you can understand.” (Of course, this is not a reference to the rest of the video but a reference to the action announced in advance. “Language you understand” is violence. Let us remind in passing that exactly the same statement can be found in the press releases of the U.S. State Department.) But, unlike Khan’s succesful message and action, our four lions’ video shooting is a big laugh, a completely amateurish mess. Is terrorism undone, therefore?

Morris’s comic strategy depends on the human weaknesses of his confused protagonists, narrated by slapstick, automatism, parody (which read like the pages of Bergson’s Laughter). They are basically “people like us,” only a bit more stupid than usual. This is also where the so-called British (or European) aspect enters the narrative scene, lovingly emphasized by Chambers: they are just angry, confused kids from Bradford and Sheffield, speaking a heavy migrant working class accent, with very little knowledge of Islam indeed. With the sad ending in which they destroy mostly themselves, we cannot not sympathize with them. And yet, since the human weakness is left to slapstick and parody, we remain in the dark as to why they are so confused and reckless.

But blaming the film for not being able to give the reasons for terrorism may not be good criticism. One may well focus on the stupidity of terrorism. The question is how. What makes me ask this question is an advice I have frequently come across with, when I googled the words “comedy” and “terrorism”: “use comedy as a counter-terrorist strategy” in the scientific words of Psychology Today. Some of the praise Four Lions received is because of its “cathartic” structure, releasing our repressed emotions. Such a solution however, especially the sense of relief, might be ideological, if we follow the best of the discipline of film studies. This is the moment the question of “how” becomes important. In conclusion, one might refer to two problematic aspects in the narrative. First of all, the Four Lions is not a comedy of terrorism, but of the terrorist. Although Morris refers to a number of police comedies as inspiring him, there is not a single instance in the movie where the police or the government are laughed at. They never become objects of humour. Secondly, we have loveable, funny, “human, all too human” terrorists who do not even know Islam, but what about the representation of Muslims in the movie? The only other example we have is Omar’s brother. Innocent as he is, he cannot look at women, wears strange garb and is hopelessly fundamentalist. Does this not mean that the lives of millions of Muslims in U.K., not to mention Europe or the world, are simply sidestepped by the film, that the British or European director, fixed on the stereotype, cannot perceive them, that they cannot enter his frame? Oh, I almost forgot that it is only a comedy! Laugh at them and relax.

Check the trailer here: http://www.imdb.com/videoplayer/vi441779225

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