Asses’ den: Four Lions’ Bradford premiere

Four Lions

Where to premiere a satire of bumbling jihadi suicide bombers? Chris Morris accompanied ‘Four Lions’ to the Bradford International Film Festival, and afterwards took questions from the audience. Kate Taylor joined them

Chris Morris has done his homework. In the four-year development process for Four Lions, his debut feature about home-grown suicide bombers, he has spoken to Muslim students, bouncers, families, and radicals.

“Not to radicals in Bradford though,” he states dryly, surveying the crowd. “They were in Blackburn.”

Indeed, on this rainy Thursday many of the people he canvassed are sat in the packed cinema for the film’s UK premiere at the Bradford International Film Festival. Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg is in the house. As audiences go, this one is certainly invested.

Choosing to hold Four Lions’ UK premiere in Yorkshire is a smart move, above and beyond the local interest of nearby filming locations. For a film that could have had its pick of premiere outings, the decision seems a conscious effort to circumvent the regular pitfall of controversial fare, whereby the social groups depicted only get to know about a film upon having a microphone thrust into their faces.

Yet it’s still a risk. British-born terrorism is always going to be a hot topic, but a couple of recent events add a heightened sensitivity around (mis)representation. It’s six days since the sentencing of the ‘Blackburn Resistance’, a group of Muslims who made mobile-phone videos of themselves crawling through a park in Lancashire in camouflage, and claimed in their defence to have an interest in military history borne of watching Predator 600 times. And it’s five days since violent clashes in Bolton between the English Defence League and Unite Against Fascism led to multiple arrests – a protest the Bolton Interfaith Council had tried to prevent, predicting the violence. So perhaps, as the house lights dim, the creator of Brass Eye has cause to be nervous.

Four Lions

The film opens with our anti-heroes attempting to make their martyr video – Waj (Kavyan Novak), the group’s dim-witted man-child, posturing at the camera with a bad plastic replica AK-47, while Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the unhinged white convert, suggests that to avoid surveillance they should all eat their SIM cards.

It’s a scene reminiscent of a lighter moment in Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005), which followed the journey of two Palestinian suicide bombers. But where that film punctuated the frustration of its protagonists with glimmers of irony, Four Lions aims for relentless, merciless comedy. And the Bradford audience is in peals and fits. Sometimes it’s of the nervously incredulous ‘Did he just say/do that?’ variety, but mostly it’s the result of a steady stream of quickfire setups.

The film has many shades of In The Loop, with Jesse Armstrong as a co-writer; amongst a cracking selection of insults and gaffs, the lines in Urdu get the biggest laughs tonight. It’s shot with handheld urgency by Lol Crawley, Newcastle’s king of stylised realism, but no one would believe they’re watching a documentary: this is strictly caper territory.

The four would-be jihadists stumble from one blunder to another in their quest to… well, their quest is a little unclear. Their motives for martyrdom range from believing heaven is like a non-queuing version of Alton Towers to wanting to escape Media Studies re-takes. Even Omar (Riz Ahmed), the group’s brains and conscience, stumbles over his own fuzzy logic during a revisionist bedtime reading of The Lion King.

The police are given no counterbalancing IQ hike, and few are likely to identify with the succession of foolish characters. Who looks stupid? Bombers, MI5, politicians, police snipers, Guardian journalists, men who lock their wives under the stairs, rookie hostage negotiators, news reporters, the government of Egypt and men who drink in coffee shops and know the Heimlich manoeuvre. You might be offended if you’re not on the list.

The most unsettling character however is Omar’s wife Sophia (Preeya Kalidas), a nurse who is a vision of understanding, supporting her man’s ambitions as if he were planning a trek up Everest. When he falls prey to self-doubt, she encourages him with a casualness that is both chilling and believable: “You were loads more fun when you were going to blow yourself up.” The subsequent tableau of father, mother and eight-year-old son basking in a moment of warm domestic bliss is held an absurdist beat too long.

Death itself is kept a comedy abstract, with people literally disappearing in a puff of smoke; any more realistically visceral violence would puncture the logic of this clever lampoon of idiocy.

Four Lions

And so the post-screening Q&A, where alongside a unanimously positive response from the audience asking questions, festival director Tony Earnshaw’s line of enquiry focuses mainly on those who might brand the film controversial. It’s an odd scenario in which everyone here claims to have enjoyed the film but worries that others will misunderstand it.

“If it were my job to break taboos, that would be boring,” Morris states, adding, perhaps a little disingenuously, “Nothing I’ve done I would class as controversial.”

Does it mock Muslims?

“There is a big separation between the core beliefs of people who practice Islam and what happens in situations like this. We’re not good at understanding across a cultural divide. There is no one unified Muslim community.”

Is it based on the 7/7 bombers?

“Not at all. The dynamics are the same – a small group of people make a plan. There is nothing specific, though specifics feed into it.”

Is he concerned about the response from victims?

“I’m not out to cause offence. Going forward into a subject I’m trying to increase understanding.”

Did he have an ethical dilemma as a white middle-class guy writing about the topic?

“The thought crossed my mind. But if I followed that logic I could only write things about being the son of two GPs. It compels you to do your research. And there were resonances I did understand. It’s habitual to think it’s unfathomable, but it all makes sense to me.”

The questions turn to the cast and crew. Were they worried about embarking on the project? Arsher Ali shrugs.

“With the media there was a certain degree of trepidation,” he says. “Then I read the script and I was disappointed it wasn’t controversial enough. He’s not on the Paedogeddon!”

Kavyan Novak adopts an extremely camp German accent: “For me, the biggest challenge was the accent. Getting to live with the locals, wanting to be part of them.”

Jesse Armstrong ventures: “We’re not interested in controversy. The bit we’re interested in is good work – the funny bits.”

After all this fire-fighting of imaginary disputes, things liven up when Morris gets to talk about how you strap a bomb to a crow.

So who will the film upset? Mostly people who think bomb plots should be beyond satire. The film takes a Dr Strangelove approach to media hysteria around a scary and confusing topic, caricaturing the caricature by creating something even more hysterical. As an audience member speculates on the response of the Daily Mail, Morris breaks into a smile. “I don’t think they’ve put a foot wrong, and I don’t think they will here.”

’Four Lions’ will be reviewed in the June issue of Sight & Sound

See also

The Hurt Locker reviewed by Guy Westwell (September 2009)

Bomb culture: B. Ruby Rich on Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (April 2006)

Team America: World Police reviewed by Leslie Felperin (January 2005)

11’09”01 September 11 reviewed by Peter Matthews (January 2003)

The Siege reviewed by Ken Hollings (February 1999)

Last Updated: 21 Jan 2011