One of the most provocative films of the year is the darkest of comedies, “Four Lions.” Imagine that Muslim terrorists behave like the Keystone Kops, and you might begin to get an idea of what this combination of slapstick and acid commentary on politics and the human condition looks like. I spoke with the man behind the film, director Christopher Morris, who co-wrote and conducted much of the research.
Was your intention here to diminish the enemy by making fun of them?
There was a British Intelligence survey that said, “Hey, why don’t we use mockery?” and used this film as an example.” But it’s not a propaganda statement so much as the truth as I found it. Far from being a sort of steely, master-minded terror-type operation, you had to use whoever they threw up at the time from terribly incompetent people to people who could pull it off. But you’re still dealing with that guy thing. Arguments, differences of opinion, different levels of competence — it becomes the perfect seedbed for farce and a comedy of errors.
There was a court case that lasted eight months at the Old Bailey and the antics of these guys in the testimony continue to be hilarious. Everyone who was there unofficially described it as the Keystone Kops. But the papers wrote about the scariest elements. You lost the fact that they were sitting around not knowing the difference between an ant and a leaf. They had the most bizarre conversations I’ve ever heard from people who were not on drugs. One of them came in with a puppy. They didn’t know if a Doberman was a baby Alsatian or whether a rabbit could beat a puppy, very confused conversations. And not what you’d expect from a hard-baked terrorist. They’re really normal. They have normal conversations: What did you see on television last night? Look at my new gadget phone. What do you think is better, this iPhone or the next one?
How does this get started?
Analysts call this the bunch of guys theory. Marc Sageman is a terrorism expert whose book I read early on. He sees in the film what he wrote about in its comic form. It’s like a soccer team organizing a camping trip. Someone’s not going to get it right and the tent is going to blow away in the middle of the night. There was a Canadian cell that got terrified out in the woods that a mouse might come in the tent so that so they slept in the van. And then one of them set himself on fire. They wanted to assassinate the Prime Minister but they forgot his name.
That’s like the “some guy” tag in Fark.com.
You’ll find “some guy” on the police force, in the military. If you read Generation Kill, there are a lot of stories like this in that book.
It’s pretty much part of the fabric of life. I wasn’t expecting to find jokes in this subject when I started reading about it. But you realize that isn’t what’s strange. What’s weird is expunging of that characteristic that’s common to everything else from this particular story. So if you put it back in, you get more clarity.
The general evidence from Britain is a self-start bunch of guys. It’s like being a punk; it’s an off-the-shelf protest package.
Do women behave the same way?
They can be just as bad. We haven’t had female suicide bombers as they have in Chechnya. Though a lot of the girls we spoke to were were very keen to mock the boys for macho posturing.
How did this story develop?
You try to get inside the head of what would take someone to that position. Part of what we thought would be a convincing component for Omar is that he’s the type who always wants to think he has got one over on people. “You don’t know everything that I’ve got inside.” There is some of evidence for that in the grandiosity of people who want to look like significant players.
It started off as reading and then became people that I met. I needed to find out about the evolution of Islam and the way it was hard-baked in some places from the political reality. These kind of ideologies that are constantly shifting. The guys from Yemen are Saudis; they have nothing to do with the British cells because they’re Pakistani. It’s like the heroin trade and the cocaine trade. They are both illegal drugs, but there’s no overlap between “The French Connection” and “Scarface.” I talked to people whose cousins went to Bosnia, a “good war” — Margaret Thatcher recommended British Muslims going off to fight on behalf of Muslims against the Serbs in Bosnia. So they’re safe to tell you about that jihad. And they tell stories about going to training camps and getting in trouble for asking questions. They’re a little bit softer than the Afghan guys or those from harder circumstances and some of the other guys but they ask more questions and get into trouble because questions are the work of the devil. And there’s this conflict between British Pakistanis who think they are superior and Pakistani Pakistanis who see them coming; there’s internal racism, a very complicated cultural picture. The British Pakistanis refer to the natives as “Pakis,” which is a derogatory and racist term. People go to training camp and they’re a fish out of water.
It’s a romantic call to arms. It really lightens up your life if you live in a dull gray town without much prospect. But that’s the low end. The people with higher qualifications go for a more sophisticated reason, part of which is the desire to be a soldier. Your sense of outrage about people being blown up that you identify with. That’s part of it but the self-aggrandizing element is there, too. That little narrative provides a solution for one or two people.
I didn’t want to show a single inciting incident because that’s not how it happens.