Hipsters and Jihadists
FILM STILL COURTESY OF DRAFTHOUSE FILMS
Four Lions director Chris Morris didn’t become one of England’s premier satirists by avoiding the big topics of the day. With his groundbreaking 1990s TV show Brass Eye, he satirized the hysterical tone of the 24-hour news media. Then his brutally funny Nathan Bartley mocked hipster culture and the manufacturing (and selling) of cool. Four Lions, his first feature film and perhaps his most polemical project to date, depicts a gang of hapless suicide bombers as they set off for a Pakistani training camp and bumble through their plans to blow up Western targets. The uncomfortably familiar narrative is funny, surprisingly touching and features some truly spectacular swearing in Urdu. We chatted with Morris about the difference between collateral damage and slapstick comedy.
KEN MILLER: What do hipsters and terrorists have in common?
CHRIS MORRIS: Oh, where does it stop? I think there is something kind of hip about those who espouse a sort of Maoist jihadi ideology. It’s actually pretty cool on the block. And it’s cheaper than wearing a lot of gold like a drug dealer. You get to hang out looking resplendent in your fine beard, berating your brothers and sisters. It goes down pretty well as a cool move.
MILLER: With Four Lions, are you trying to knock some of that cool out of it?
MORRIS: The movie is not a propaganda tool. It’s more about saying, “Hey, look what I found.” The fact is that you stumble across repeated examples of silly things in a very serious context… You want to tell people about that.
MILLER: Can you tell me a little bit about the research you did for the film?
MORRIS: There were lots of things we discovered. Obviously, a lot of it has to do with male group dynamics. [With Mohamed Atta’s terror cell in Hamburg, Germany], the shortcut to the mosque was through a full-on sex joint. He used to take the long route, so he could avoid the embarrassment of seeing that. So after meetings they would stay in the flat as long as possible so he would have to take the shortcut, because it was funny to watch him be uncomfortable. I mean, that sort of thing was actually quite common—we discovered that they had all of these sorts of hazing rituals.
MILLER: There’s the story that the 9-11 hijackers went to a strip club the night before the attacks.
MORRIS: That’s a myth. The other disappointing myth is that the so-called “20th hijacker” went to flight school and said he only needed to learn how to take off and they didn’t need to teach him how to land. But while he was in court and trying to get himself executed, I think, he had a habit of making a real asshole of himself. One time he was dragged out of court singing “Burn in the USA” to the tune of the Bruce Springsteen song. Which is almost a joke. I mean, he wrote a joke!
MILLER: The characters in Four Lions are hapless and dumb. Why did you portray them that way?
MORRIS: Well, they’re leaders and followers. But that’s what happens. I mean, if you look at something like Jackass, Johnny Knoxville is not dense but some of the others you wonder about. It’s actually not that far off of a comparison.
MILLER: Are you more interested in humor or satire?
MORRIS: I don’t really aim to do anything. You stumble into things. I wasn’t planning on doing a comedy about jihadis but I kept finding proof that were funny in real life. But there’s no master plan… You find that you’re reacting to things and often times the clearest reaction is a joke.
MILLER: What’s weird about making a comedy about this topic is that these characters become almost sympathetic.
MORRIS: Well, there are people who become involved in this [movement] almost as an act of misguided charity. [Four Lions lead character] Omar, if he was wearing a different uniform, you would feel quite differently about him. That doesn’t mean he’s right in either instance. Early in the research for the film, I was talking to a CIA analyst and he made the point that these people aren’t mad. They’ve arrived by a series of thoughts into a particular position.
MILLER: Has the reaction to the film been different in the US from the UK?
MORRIS: Well, one guy in Texas wanted to organize an outdoor screening with a training camp theme—everyone would turn up with a big bushy beard and they’d make a cardboard model of the World Trade Center for people to fly model planes into.