Nothing’s Sacred in Terrorist Comedy ‘Four Lions’

Making a comedy about a cell of suicide bombers might seem like an unlikely prospect, but it’s all par for the course with filmmaker Chris Morris. That name might draw blank stares on this side of the pond, but in Britain he’s something of a legend. Part satirist, part surrealist prankster, part deadly serious media critic, Morris first made his name as the writer and star of the landmark TV show “The Day Today” — a spot-on parody of the nightly news that predated “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert by a half decade.

He followed that with the fake newsmagazine series, “The Brass Eye.” Taking the guise of a self-important TV reporter, Morris managed to inveigle gullible celebrities, including singer Phil Collins, into making PSAs about the dangers of a fictitious drug called Cake. He even managed to convince one hapless MP into making a speech on the Parliament about the fake substance. But Morris gained true notoriety with his show’s lacerating take on the media’s hysteria over pedophilia. Channel 4 received a record number of complaints about the episode and it caused the Daily Mail to dub him, “Most Hated Man in Britain.”

So for his debut feature, Morris, not surprisingly, goes where very few humorists have dared to tread. “Four Lions,” which comes out on DVD this week, is about a small hilariously blundering group of jihadists.

There have been a few flicks out there, like “Team America,” that have taken on the War on Terror but they have always done so from the point of view of the West. Morris’ movie japes from the point of view of the terrorists. In the hands of a lesser satirist, this would be a recipe for something shallow, cliched, and offensively stereotypic.

But Morris has always taken pains to thoroughly research his subjects — he took a news editing courses in preparation for “The Day Today.” The genesis of “Four Lions” came out of years of research — interviews, poring over government intelligence, and even attending the trials of London bombers — and the result gives a much more complicated view of jihadists than is given by the bloviators on cable news. “Four Lions” is also staggeringly funny.

Jonathan Crow: What inspired you to make a movie about jihadists?

Chris Morris: Real life. Basically, reading into the subject, not expecting to find funny incidents but finding them nonetheless. I reading an account of the evolution of Al Qaeda and how it came into being and I came across examples of people behaving in rather all too human, doltish, or even sheer incompetent ways. There was a bunch of Yemeni jihadis who wanted to blow up a warship that was moored out in the bay with an exploding boat and they duly assembled it at three in the morning. They put it in the sea. They loaded it with explosives. And it sank. And I thought that’s like a moment from a farce. I noted it and moved on but these moments kept coming up. There’s another story about an Algerian terrorist who was summoned over to see Bin Laden. Bin Laden said ‘I want you to work for me, brother.’ The Algerian terrorist said, ‘I have no intention to work with you, mate. I’m my own man. And if I ever hear from you again, I’m going to come here and cut your f**king head off.” And I thought, there’s a reaction shot of Bin Laden on a rug looking like a slapped child. All these kinds of things undermine the almost sacredly evil image that comes through the media.

JC: One thing I found interesting in your film, which is different from a lot of standard Hollywood movies, not that there are too many Hollywood movies made about jihadists…

CM: C’mon guys.

JC: [Laughing] …is that you manage to make the characters very human, even likeable, except you don’t ever really explain why they’re going through these incomprehensibly awful plans. A lot of the characters are doltish and clownish but the main character, Omar, is smart. He has a very likeable, middle class family. And there’s this tension, this irony, between that life he’s got and his stated intention. How did you construct your characters?

CM: Well, again, you take the clues from real life examples. You get to see the dynamics of the cell quite a lot from the government intelligence. They’re like tomes, a series of telephone directories full of surveillance material, and they’re full of conversations between the different members of the cell. So you can see how they interact with each other and how some are brighter than others. Some have the knowledge; some really don’t know what’s going on at all. Some have a very naïve sense of their religion and a very very undernourished sense of that religion; they’re basically following a sort of almost romantic dream in which they’re some kind of cosmic Jedi force against evil. It’s a very easily understood motivation because we all respond to stories about good and evil. Where would the film industry be without that? It’s just that with this one it just seems to be the wrong way around. But it is only a full 180 inversion because from their point of view, they’re doing the right thing. And if they’re doing the right thing, it’s not impossible to run a normal family life. I suspect that if I said to you, ‘Why do you think that Omar’s doing it’ what would you say?

JC: What would I say?

CM: Yeah.

JC: Um. Because he wants to create a purer society. One that’s free of all the decadence of Western culture, like sex shops and birth control.

CM: So you pulled one of the splinters of evidence through the film of what he might be thinking. What I absolutely didn’t want to do was to take the corny movie script movie on catapulting Omar on his course on the basis of one inciting incident that probably happened twelve minutes into the film. Because real life doesn’t work like that. And what I did, on the other hand, definitely want to do was to make him a plausible character with an understandable motivation that was presented to you but not as that single catapult move. As well as the one you mentioned, he does feel that society is not matching up, but he’s also strongly aware that Muslims, he says to his brother, Muslims are getting pasted all over the world and you’re just standing there measuring your beard. He wants to fight a resistance cause against what he sees as an attack on his people. There’s also an ego element. It pleases him to be leading the cell. When he’s left the cell and his wife says, ‘You used to be more fun when you were going to blow yourself up.’ She’s saying, “You’ve lost your mojo.”

JC: Yeah, that was a really surprising moment, because I was expecting the wife to say, “What are you nuts?”

CM: Exactly. It’s a complicated situation that’s difficult to sum up without sounding trite. You find situations where female members of a family, be they wives, sisters, or whatever, are supportive of this move because they buy the political reason, rightly or wrongly, they buy it as an act of resistance. I must fight on the right side on behalf of the oppressed. It’s “Braveheart.” She believes that and she also believes in the afterlife. So this goodbye is not the final goodbye.

JC: This movie is hilarious, but it really doesn’t pull any punches. This is a movie about terrorists. And bombs do go off…

CM: I think it would be foolish to pull any punches. It would be a desertion of duty. If you’re making a subject about a subject you got to stick to the subject. It would be like “MASH” without wounds. It would be like “Dog Day Afternoon” without any consequences at the end. When Sal gets shot in “Dog Day Afternoon” that’s quite sad. You’ve come to identify with these guys. They’re robbers and it’s a klutzy heist. And lives are in danger and people are scared and it’s a big siege. A man gets shot. But there’s a lot of comedy in that film too.

JC: More than any other comedian that I can think of, you really ride that line between funny and tragic…

CM: That’s where it comes from. I really can’t stand stuff that seems to come from a play room that doesn’t have any concept of reality at all. Comedy and tragedy are very very close. They’re just two very different ways of looking at the same thing. You want to contain the full range rather than just stick it in some safety zone where you’re giggling at cartoons you’ve drawn on yourself.

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March 2011

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