Finding humour in uncomfortable topics has a long history. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, for example, cracks the absurdity of the fascist mindset. Four Lions — a 2010 British film, written by Chris Morris and the two guys behind Peep Show — plays with the idea of terrorist cells.
Omar and Waj are Pakistani-Britons who — for reasons that are not entirely clear — have become radicalised. They’ve formed their own terrorist cell along with another Pakistani-Briton, Faisal, and a borderline insane white convert, Barry. Omar is desperate to be taken seriously. When they’re making little home movies about the evils of imperialism and consumerism, Omar finds that his friends aren’t quite as sharp as he is. Waj wants to look intimidating, so he hods a small toy gun while issuing threats to the West, for example. Barry gives advice on how to swallow SIM cards so the government can’t trace them.
Omar and Waj are invited to attend a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, but things go badly when Omar tries to fire a rocket at a US drone but instead ends up firing it backwards into the jihadists. Omar and Waj flee back to the UK. Desperate to save face, Omar decides to take their terrorist cell to the next level: they will build a bomb and set it off somewhere in England.
The film captures the stupidity not only of the protagonists but also of the society around them which allows the protagonists to operate. Omar clearly feels the need to prove himself in his society and a lot of the film comes down to his construction of masculinity. There’s a wonderful contrast between Omar and his brother. Omar’s brother is a fundamentalist Muslim who refuses to be in the same room as Omar’s wife, who disapproves of the use of jokes, but who can cite 67 opinions about why terrorism is anti-Islamic. Omar, meanwhile, is a lot more liberal, especially in his family life and in his treatment of his wife. In Pakistan, however, Omar is thoroughly out of place. Yet it is Omar who wants to be a religious martyr.
There’s a panel discussion about moderate Islam in Britain. Somehow Barry — the insane white convert who wants to blow up a mosque in order to convince Muslims that they need to radicalise against a society that hates them — has been invited to be a speaker at this panel. The panel also includes a local MP who can only speak in absurdly politically correct platitudes. Thus, the debate of the panel is dominated by the two people with the least substance but the most motivation to speak.
When it comes time to stop this group, the police instead arrest Omar’s fundamentalist but extremely peaceful brother and then end up shooting a bystander.
Quite appropriately, the film does not connect Islam with terrorism. If anything, religious fundamentalists are given the nod of approval by the script. The film accurately identifies an altogether different problem beneath terrorism: problems about masculinity, about fitting in, about having a voice, and about understanding our place in connexion with our history. Omar’s quest is derived from his need to feel like a real Pakistani — even though he is clearly more at home in Yorkshire. What society would exclude Omar? A society in which a politician can claim that the police sniper shot the correct person, it’s just that the incorrect person had the bomb…
This makes more sense of Barry in the film. Barry’s motivation to be a terrorist doesn’t stem from his Islamic views — the film strongly suggests that he doesn’t actually have any Islamic views, viewing the mosques as being somehow illegitimate — but from his prolonged adolescent rage against authority. Barry is as disconnected from his own cultural heritage as Omar is from his. He isn’t philosophically engaged in the questions of the capitalist state or the justified use of violence, he has merely found a group of people who seem to provide him a safe space to spout antisocial ideas.
Because the world within the film is so thoroughly absurd, it is difficult to assess to what extent it is a successful satire. Just as Barry isn’t engaged with the big philosophical questions, the film also bypasses that question. It’s hard to imagine that anybody thinks there is a grain of truth to the film’s claim that home grown terrorist cells are filled with incompetent morons. On the other hand, Omar provides a way of presenting a young man who is, ultimately, a good guy who is incomprehensibly confused about his identity to the point of depersonalised violence.
It seems to be nearly impossible to get your hands on a copy of this film, but it’s highly recommended that you do.
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