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9/11 Film Series: Four Lions

Tonight was the last film in the 9/11 Film Series: Four Lions, a dark comedy about suicide bombers.

As I designed the 9/11 Film Series, I felt that Four Lions would be an effective bookend to this film series with United 93. As I indicated in my blog entry about United 93, that film views very much like a horror picture, and horror and comedy and like brother and sister in that they often find laughs or scares in fundamentally the same things. A gory horror film like Hostel makes us squirm or scream in terror at the inner functions of the human body but a bawdy comedy like Bridesmaids makes us laugh at virtually the same thing. The horror filmmaker exposes social and individual anxieties and puts the audience through a traumatic experience that ultimately makes the viewer feel better about it. Similarly, the comedian is a social critic who stands before the audience in an accusatory role and exposes the lunacy and hypocrisy around him.

In the context of this film series, United 93 showed us the devastation of terrorism, Osama frightened us with religion inspired oppression, and Taxi to the Dark Side startled us with its depiction of institutionalized torture. Four Lions invites us to laugh at this horror.

That isn’t as morbid or crass as it sounds, in part because Four Lions gets its tone right. Although anything can be funny, not everything is funny in every way. The Holocaust does not suggest itself as a comedic topic and there is certainly nothing funny about films like The Reader or Schindler’s List. But Life is Beautiful manages to set a comedy in a Nazi death camp and use the humor as a way to cope with the horror. Four Lions does the same with terrorism. The film plays up the absurd and finds laughs in the stupidity of the characters while also nodding at the human loss of the situation.

One of the more curious qualities of Four Lions is its regard for Muslims and Islam. In my blog post for Osama, I made mention of my concern that the 9/11 Film Series not encourage prejudice toward the Muslim community. That was also a concern for this film, but Four Lions makes a few subversive choices that undermine stereotypes. First is the depiction of Omar, played by Riz Ahmed, the leader of the would-be terrorist cell.  His home life is very Westernized; he wears western clothing and has a strong marriage and a loving relationship with his son. This comes in opposition to the expectation of a anti-Western, ultra-conservative misogynist. Second is the character of Barry, played by Nigel Lindsay, the most militant of the group, who constantly uses Islam and his identity as a jihadist to justify himself. He is by far the least sympathetic character in the film and his attempts to use Islam to assert his authority come across as shallow and asinine, to say the least. Both of these characters are in contrast to Ahmed, played by Wasim Zakir, Omar’s brother and a devout Muslim. Ahmed tells Omar that his plans are not justified and he later invites his brother to come to a study group, an offer that Omar rejects. The point here is clear: neither Omar nor Barry represent Islam or other Muslims. In fact, they are not really interested in Islam at all.

This distinction between Omar and Barry on the one hand and Ahmed on the other takes a final turn in the film’s conclusion. In a cross cut sequence, the group of terrorists commit to their final bombing plan while British police arrest Ahmed, which punctuates the absurdity not only of terrorism but also of law enforcement’s response to it. And in the final coda, Ahmed is shown being interrogated by intelligence officers, leaving viewers with a final impression of sympathy for the one character in the film who was actually a Muslim in word and deed.

What Four Lions provides, both on its own but especially in the context of this film series, is an opportunity for an exasperated release both by the audience and by the filmmaker. The picture uses comedy to give us a way to cope with a subject that is fundamentally tragic. If the goal of the terrorist is to terrorize—that is, to cause fear—then laughing at them might be the most devastating retaliation of all.

Recommended Viewing:

Also – Check out this video of Four Lions director Chris Morris introducing the film and this particularly astute review of Four Lions by film critic Mark Kermode.

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