Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Four Lions


    Director Chris Morris takes aim at political correctness in this hilarious comedy about British jihadi terrorists. True, suicide bombings, aren't usually were we look to find laughs, but then again, why not? As Voltaire once said "I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it." To my knowledge, one serious movie has been made about suicide bombers (Paradise Now, 2005), but there is so much that is illogical and ridiculous in Islamic extremism that turning it all into a farce is just as valid an approach.
     Morris lets us take pleasure in watching the antics of the four lions (there are actually five) by making his characters totally incompetent. Well, the leader of the gang, Omar, still has some smarts to him, and even if he's a little unhinged, he is more misguided then evil. The rest range from stupid (Waj can't even make it through the children's book The Cat who went to Mecca) to downright crazy (Barry, the only white member of the group, wants to bomb a mosque in order to "radicalize the moderates.") The movie starts with Waj and Omar heading to a training camp in Afghanistan. When they fail there, they go back to Britain to plan an attack on the London marathon. There's not much guilt in watching this band of misfits mess up again and again; many of the gags are pure slapstick, and the delightful idiocy on display is something that's universal--in comedy and in life. What works for stoners, medieval knights, and frat boys works just as well for terrorists.
    This is not to say that Four Lions goes down too easily. Deaths are played for laughs, and Morris tests the limits of black humor in ways that are decidedly uncomfortable. Should you laugh as policemen wrongly shoot innocent civilians? Probably not, but if you see how this scene plays out in the movie you might not be able to help yourself. And how are we really supposed to feel about these hapless jihadists who, nevertheless, aren't as harmless as we would like? The film is pretty ambiguous about this question given that it humanizes its subjects while ridiculing them. In one scene Omar tells his son the story of Disney's Lion King, only he's using Simba as a metaphor for himself so that he can describe his duties and mistakes as a terrorist. This scene and others involving Omar's wife are cliché enough to be satirical of middle class drama, but somehow, they're too real and touching to be reduced to that. Morris is interested in how these characters are "British people who have been here quite a long time and who make curry and are part of the landscape." They lead the same dull lives as everyone else, and are just as dependent on western-style capitalism.
     But let's not get carried away with misplaced compassion here. One reason western societies have so much trouble understanding terrorism is that they are unable to differentiate between the extremists and everyone else. Just take the uproar over the "ground zero mosque" as an example. Four Lions, however, makes the distinction between peaceful muslims who are actually able to cite the Koran and the few anomalies who know only their own hate. And the movie becomes overtly political when it shows the police targeting the former instead of the latter.
    I think it could have a broader political goal as well. It may seem odd to make terrorists even a little sympathetic, but in making them idiotic it strips any fear they might inspire. And I won't exactly be the first person to say that it's this fear that's ultimately controls us. So Four Lions is like laughing in a horror movie to ease the tension. Once you see how ridiculous what you're looking at really is, it's hard not to find it funny.


1 comment:

  1. I think an Athenian school (Danville, CA) world studies teacher provides a more insightfull review:

    In the film we are introduced to (and students are able to make the connection between what we have learned about the following), Wahhabis, Salafis, Hanbali, Hanafi, and other Sunni Muslim groups as well as Shia and Sufis.

    The film focuses on Sunni groups. Each character represents a different segment of the population.

    The faction in Pakistan obviously represents Taliban/Al Qaeda, i.e. true Salafi extremism. However the character's "back home" are interestingly nuanced. Hassan Malik aka "The Mal" with his penchance for quoting Tupac Shakur and dancing, represents the typical Sunni Muslim youth (His turn at the end and repentance is a key element which showcases his inner confusion). Faisal (who inadvertently blows himself and some sheep up) represents the Hanbali or Shafa'ii perspective, his style of dress as well as his critique of and avoidance of the camera for example. Buddy represents the Muslim convert who is trying to be more extreme to create a sense of legitimacy amongst the other Muslims (i.e. I'm not with everyone else, I am with you). He also represents the convert Wahhabi mentality, like when he says "Women are talking back... and they are using stringed instruments". Waj represents an interesting look at an important segment of the Muslim population those who are mentally challenged or have learning differences. In Sunni Islam, as well as some Shia schools, mental illness is not recognized. Often undiagnosed, and psychiatrists are seen as no-no's. An individual like Waj becomes easily manipulated by his friends, and in the end when he says "I don't know what I'm doing" it shows both the innocence of Waj, as well as the danger of individuals like this within a community. Finally Omar and his family. His brother is a classic Wahhabi, who locks his women in the cupboard, but is harmless outside of the gender oppression of his household. While Omar and his family is the classic Hanafi family, that believes that martyrdom really only requires an intention and a death. They also believe in predestination which is a classic Hanafi belief structure.

    The lions is a throwback reference to (and Simba is used in this way) to an early Arabic metaphor referring to the companions of Muhammad. Seeing themselves as Lions for Islam, for the modern era.

    What is interesting is the word martyrdom which comes from the Greek word martyr and not the Latin mort. So its not about mort-death, but martyr-witness. In Arabic the word is Shaheed which comes from the root Shahid (witness) as well. As Sufis and some Shia and Sunni define the term is about how one lives one's life, and when they die, their life testifies for their beliefs. This became twisted into death by the scholars Hanafi and later Hanbali and his predecessor Abdul Wahhab.

    We discussed the background for the entire semester and the film tied things together. Interestingly, the students did not comment on a difficulty in understanding the Yorkshire slang, but, some borders were straining.