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As a pioneer of the fake news industry, Chris Morris spent much of his career bludgeoning the sensitivities and cultural hang-ups of Great Britain in the New Labour era. With the television series The Day Today and Brass Eye, Morris looked at subjects like drug abuse, the Irish Republican Army and pedophilia and saw an epidemic of media and political hysteria waiting to be ridiculed. This was several years before the rise of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
With his debut feature Four Lions, Morris is once again tackling a loaded subject while poking at his audience’s sensibilities. Focusing on a cell of aspiring Islamic terrorists in an anonymous British suburb, the film is a black-hearted farce in which the suicide bombers are more dangerous for their stupidity than their fanaticism. In researching Four Lions, Morris found unexpected humor in the seemingly bleakest of subjects, a warm reception from Muslim audiences and, unsurprisingly, very misguided public views on the topic.
Four Lions finishes up a one-week run at the Landmark E Street Cinema tomorrow. Morris and I spoke last week in Georgetown.
Washington City Paper: The entertainment industry has been hesitant —
Chris Morris: Retarded, really.
WCP: — or retarded. Anyway, it’s been delicate in skewering Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. So when you decided to approach that subject, what was your thought process?
CM: I found examples that were funny. I wasn’t looking for jokes; I was just trying to enhance my understanding because I felt the media narrative was rather thin. I came across stories like the Yemenis who wanted to blow up a U.S. warship with an exploding boat and they got down to the quayside at three in the morning, put their launch in the water, filled it with explosives and it sank. That’s a funny, amusing moment and I didn’t think any more of it until these examples started building up. The guys in the Hamburg cell who became the 9/11 plotters used to tease Mohammed Atta for being too extreme. He tried to start Islamic discussion groups but he couldn’t keep them together for more than a week because he’d sack them all for not being Islamic enough. And this is kind of like a character flaw that is the meat and drink of comedy.
WCP: What were some other examples?
CM: There was a Canadian cell who plotted to assassinate the prime minister but forgot his name. The same group went camping but got scared that a mouse would run into the tent and the wound up camping in the car. The thing is, whether it’s competent or incompetent, you find the same basic flatfooted human behavior, because that’s what we are. You read a book like Generation Kill — it’s there. When you get a bunch of average guys to try to organize something, that’s what happens.
WCP: Getting back to the track record that other entertainers have had in trying to approach Islamic fundamentalism — I’m thinking mainly of those cartoons from a few years ago — were you at all worried that some of the backlash they’ve experienced coming your way?
CM: I spoke to a lot of Muslims whilst I was researching this, and the most common thing they said when I told them I was going to make a comedy about this subject was “bring it on.” Now, I don’t think they were trying to trick me into getting myself in danger. They wanted to see something that was funny on this subject. They wanted the solemn, oppressive tone to be broken. And they recognized this kind of silliness exists. In Britain it’s been very well received by Muslims. The lads in the film got a bit of a cult following like rock stars. I spoke to a guy who literally fought alongside bin Laden against the Russians and he came to a screening and had to be asked to keep it down because he was laughing so much. It’s not really the same territory as the cartoons.
WCP: The cell leader in the film, Omar, retells the story of The Lion King to his son from a jihadist perspective. Was that something you encountered in your research?
CM: I met some guys who are pretty radical who like The Lion King and there doesn’t seem to be any contradiction. You watch The Lion King and you identify with Simba, not Scar, right? And I suppose these guys are involved in a good-bad narrative. It’s more straightforward than you would think. You do have nihilists like Barry (the Muslim convert played by Nigel Lindsay) in the film, but the more common position is, “we’re fighting for God.” That is the thought. And that makes sense for Simba, it makes sense for Braveheart, it makes sense for Lord of the Rings. All of these films are name-checked by people who do or at least express support for the idea of fighting in this way. Disney’s very good for this.
CM: I could radicalize you. You give me a week and a set of grievances and if I have a copy of The Lion King you’ll be out there waging war.
WCP: We’ve got to talk about Barry. Each of the other bombers is pretty ridiculous in their own way, but Barry is really out there. Where did he come from?
CM: That could have been the American title of the film — We Have to Talk About Barry. But quite often you come across the convert in a cell. This is not to say all Islamic converts are wackos, but there is a little subset of convert who come to Islam as a way of resolving their already warlike tensions. There was a Neo-Nazi in Britain who converted to Islam as a result of 9/11. He was wanting the world to end anyway, and he thought “these guys run the best game in town.” That gives you a clue as to where Barry might be coming from. We had a backstory for him in that he was into nihilist, destructive ideology anyway and he may well have converted because of 9/11. There were scenes that we never used, but you could challenge whether he was really a Muslim at all because he was just hell-bent on destruction. He says to bomb the mosque. Is he a classic agent provocateur or is he a total idiot?
WCP: I was inclined toward total idiot.
CM: But a dangerous idiot.
WCP: A really dangerous idiot. You have him swallowing a SIM card and a car key in the first 10 minutes and at the end he tries another SIM card and that’s of course his undoing. But throughout Barry seemed the most committed out of all four of them.
CM: I’m going to now hold up a sign for myself saying “Spoiler Alert,” in that he’s most committed to the cause that he thinks he’s following. And he’s the least shakable because the others exhibit a form of conscience. That’s what interested me. They think they’re the good guys and you see that. Barry, I suspect of the cell we have in the film, is the guy who’s doing it thinking he’s the bad guy. If you think you’re the good guy, then maybe you have some sort of a conscience.
WCP: Or remorse kicks in at the end?
CM: Something. You can see it. The intelligence analysis which is called the “bunch of guys” theory looks at the small-group dynamics of these cells. One of the striking things I read in this book Understanding Terrorist Networks by an ex-CIA case officer is that it’s much more likely that these groups work through group love rather than out-group hate. What keeps a cell going is the bonds between the guys and the loyalties and reinforcements that happen there. In the film we want to show that happening, albeit in a cell in which there are many arguments.
WCP: What role did our views and perceptions of terrorism take in the film?
CM: I suppose it was part of the initial problem that I felt I wasn’t getting nearly enough information from the way this stuff is reported. You just get the upgraded gossipy bits and the shouting. That’s the media version. I wanted to find out more about it. An absence of information about an important subject causes you to go in pursuit of what might be really happening.
WCP: From that perspective what did you find our perceptions to be?
CM: I wouldn’t have all of this stuff to say if I weren’t making a film about it. But certainly in Britain where we’ve had all these Pakistanis and their families living there for over 50 years, I was struck by how little I knew. We don’t tend to find out very much about people who aren’t in some way like us. But on the other hand there’s the most amazing stories amongst these people, far more than I could put in to a film. And most of it not about this subject at all. What casts the die in the way we think about this subject in general is predominantly ignorance. You can’t form the sort of thoughts the media produce unless you are massively ignorant. Public expectation would take a comedy about terrorism and ask how could you make a comedy about that. Most people who have seen [Four Lions] have come out laughing.
WCP: A lot of the comedy is very broad. It’s a lot of sight gags.
CM: But look, the guy who sent the bombs in the print cartridges a few days ago, did you know he turned his brother into a bottle rocket? He persuaded his brother to assassinate a Saudi prince with a bomb placed where you would put a suppository. He goes into see the Saudi prince and he’s got the dynamics of the explosion wrong. The Saudi prince asks him what he wants. The guy presses the button and shoots straight through the ceiling. So that’s a sight gag for you. The prince dusts himself off and asks what’s next.
WCP: It’s horrific at the same time.
CM: Yes, it’s horrific for his mother. But at the right distance. With film there are rules that are entirely different to the rules of real life. There’s no true morality about who you can laugh at blowing up and who you can’t. But you think of the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene where the guy comes at Indiana Jones with his scimitar and shoots him—
WCP: It’s hilarious.
CM: And there’s a dead man as a punch line.
WCP: Finally I just wanted to touch quickly on the TV series you did before this, The Day Today and Brass Eye. Those two series as well as this movie really go after our perceptions of big issues, whether it’s terrorism in Four Lions or drugs or pedophilia in Brass Eye. What is it about skewering public opinions of these big issues that drives you?
CM: I suppose if you’re looking for a common theme, I would basically say there’s something in these subjects that produce a kneejerk reaction. If you persuaded someone who can walk and talk and feed themselves to sit down on camera and speak on behalf of a drug that doesn’t exist, you think we’re dealing with a peculiar degree of thoughtlessness on a subject. And that’s a serious underpinning. It’s hysterically funny to do it. You don’t ever think you’re going to get away with it. But I think the common theme is the things that are likely to make people jump. There’s something interesting about surprising incidents of humor in real life in relation to these plots.