25 September 2011

Four Lions review

Originally published in Cineaste.

In summer 2001, the career of Chris Morris, Britain’s most intelligent and controversial satirist, came to a crossroads. His one-off revival of spoof television documentary series Brass Eye (originally aired in 1997) tackled paedophilia, focusing on the British media response to the murder of schoolgirl Sarah Payne the previous summer. This included the News of the World’s notorious ‘name and shame’ campaign, after which mobs attacked suspected paedophiles: famously, a Newport (Wales) paediatrician was forced from her home after finding ‘paedo’ painted on her door.

Labour politicians joined the tabloid-led backlash against Morris. Beverley Hughes (soon to become Minister of State for ‘Immigration, Citizenship and Counter-Terrorism’) called Brass Eye “unbelievably sick” before admitting her refusal to watch it; David Blunkett, the Labour MP for Sheffield and the Home Secretary following the 2011 General Election (responsible for a number of astonishingly illiberal policies in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7), claimed to be “dismayed”, before it emerged that he had been abroad when the programme was broadcast, and during the subsequent controversy. Tessa Jowell, the newly installed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, asked the Independent Television Commission to ban similar programmes in future, and it looked as though no broadcaster would trust Morris again.

The British media used the Cold War to create a culture of fear, a process eloquently explored in Adam Curtis’s documentary The Power of Nightmares (2004). The collapse of European Communism left an overarching narrative void which right-wing newspapers and television stations attempted to fill with a number of hidden dangers, ranging from the Ebola virus to lurking paedophiles. Just weeks after the Brass Eye special aired, nineteen Islamic fundamentalists attacked New York’s World Trade Center and the ‘War on Terror’, presented as a conflict against international terrorists operating under the banner of ‘Al-Qaeda’, a kind of state across states, became the over-riding concern of the Anglo-American news.

Tackling this global conflict, Morris caused further (albeit smaller) outrage in March 2002, with his Observer ‘Absolute Atrocity Special’ pull-out, co-written with Armando Iannucci. This mocked Anglo-American reactions to ‘9/11’: in hindsight, following the release of ‘Jihadist comedy’ Four Lions, the most telling entry of their spoof post-attack timeline read: ‘Hosting the film Baftas, Stephen Fry delivers an unspeakably trite and fucked-up heap of shit urging filmmakers to “keep telling stories” in the face of world events – as if films make any fucking difference to anything, least of all the advancement of peace’.

Four Lions takes the opposite approach to the ‘Absolute Atrocity Special’, satirising the bombers rather than those in power. This is not Dr. Strangelove for the ‘War on Terror’, nor is it a film which aims to change anything – even, as did his earlier works, its viewers’ critical take on how important issues are framed. Morris’s film – co-written with Sam Armstrong and Jesse Bain, creators of popular sitcom Peep Show – follows four British Muslims in Leeds, northern England, through their thoroughly incompetent efforts to plan and execute a terrorist attack, from their inept communiqués to their panic-stricken assault on the London Marathon.

The film’s title indicates one of the main sites of its humour – the inanity of the bombers’ cultural references – alluding to comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s hit single Three Lions, about the England football team’s hopes of winning the 1996 European Championship. It opens with an amateur video, the first words being “Sit properly!” Immediately, we understand that these terrorists, recognisably situated in a comfortable British home, are idiots: Morris cuts to group leader Omar (played skilfully by Riz Ahmed) watching the badly-shot footage on a laptop. Like Mohammed Sidique Khan, the oldest and most socially ‘successful’ of the 7/7 bombers, Omar is married. Here, he tells his wife and son that these are the “bloopers”.

It is also obvious that the terrorists have no aim and no message: Morris refuses any attempt to ‘understand’ them, as many in the West struggled to do after 9/11, as the mainstream media denied any motive for their actions. The Iraq war, thought to have ‘radicalised’ the London bombers of 7 July 2005 and those whose attacks failed two weeks later, is never mentioned, although British troops remained in the country when Four Lions was filmed. The concerns that populate their anti-Western rhetoric are trivial – McDonalds represents the limit of their imaginations, as it did for the anti-capitalist protesters who smashed up a Whitehall branch on May Day 2000 (an act for which Matthew MacDonald was expelled from Eton).

Omar aside, the terrorists talk more like members of British pop groups such as N-Dubz or the So Solid Crew, or Ali G from Channel Four’s otherwise execrable Eleven O’Clock Show. Like Brass Eye and Peep Show, and Morris’s 2005 sitcom Nathan Barley (written with Charlie Brooker, satirising London hipsters), Four Lions rests heavily – sometimes too heavily – on idiosyncratic dialogue for its laughs, but the character interaction more recalls older comedy shows Father Ted or Blackadder, with one scheming underachiever relying on a small cast of fools to achieve his ill-defined and ultimately self-interested goals.

In portraying the insurgents as imbeciles, Four Lions is consistently amusing. The depth of their stupidity is swiftly explicated: whilst Omar and Faisal are in Pakistan, headed for a terrorist training camp, it transpires that Faisal’s knowledge of Islam is derived solely from a book entitled The Cat Who Went to Mecca. Their farcical dismissal after accidentally firing at their comrades paves the way not so much for a critique of their ideology as the exposure of its absence, mocking their attempts to identify targets without any intellectual framework.

This sets up some of the film’s funniest running jokes. Nigel Lindsay shines as Cockney convert Barry – or Azzam al-Britani, as he’s presented on the Islam: Moderation and Progress seminar panel, where he admits the existence of training camps only to deny them within the same sentence. Barry’s tactical naivety is revealed in his insistence that “We bomb the mosque”, convinced that this will “radicalise” the Muslims, even after Omar explains the flaws with an Islamic group claiming responsibility for such an act.

One of the best comic moments, building on Omar’s frustration with Barry for buying silver nitrate via Amazon, comes when the group discover that Waj has bought all his peroxide, crucial to their home-made bombs, from the same shop – referencing the 2006 transatlantic aircraft bombing plot, which was foiled after Assad Sarwar of High Wycombe was observed buying items that did not fit his everyday needs and could be used for destructive purposes. Waj’s explanation that he bought the peroxide “using different voices” (including “my IRA voice”) is hilarious – but as with Nathan Barley, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that, in contrast with Brass Eye in particular, Morris has picked too soft a target.

Omar’s impatience with Barry’s indiscretion forms the key conflict within the film: Waj, Faisal and Hassan are too weak-willed and unintelligent to devise their own agendas, or really commit to either side. Consequently, the main tension is never satisfactorily resolved: the satirical focus, tighter for the first hour than in films such as Team America (2005) which aimed to ridicule everyone involved with the conflict, eventually dissipates. With nothing to like or even understand about the characters, whose depths are never probed, it may have been interesting to at least ask if Barry is an idiot or an infiltrator, raising questions about whose tactics were most ill-conceived: those of the terrorists or the British government.

Towards its climax, Four Lions finally broadens its scope beyond the provincial plotters. In his demand for an independent inquiry (which finally began in October 2010), Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed refutes Tony Blair’s claim, made immediately after 7/7, that no intelligence could have been “specific” enough to predict the attacks. Ahmed reports that the police used the Labour government’s draconian terror legislation, which legalised internment, to target peaceful protestors, asylum seekers and dissidents rather than genuine threats, as is the case when Omar finally sidelines Barry. The massed forces break in – to the wrong house, arresting the terrified members of a peaceful Islamic study group with whom Omar clashes: the first indication of the state powers which the terrorists oppose.

The institutional mistakes that led the London Metropolitan Police to fatally shoot Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Underground station on 22 July 2005 are here reduced to individual error. The terrorists finally decide to join the London marathon in fancy dress, as so many do for charity each year. The very English policeman who first sees the bombers tells them that “You’re going to die in that gear, lads” – Omar’s response “It’s for a good cause” is perhaps the darkest line in a thoroughly black comedy.

The farce then becomes physical: aware of the bombers’ presence, the police shoot the wrong target, with Kevin Eldon (reprising his typical cameo role in almost every alternative British comedy) unable to distinguish between the Honey Monster (the Sugar Puffs mascot – one of many specifically British references that add texture to the film’s humour) and a wookie, shooting the latter rather than Omar, who is dressed as the cereal character.

The film’s narrative arc is predictable from the start: the inevitability and ineptitude of the gang’s deaths feels over-determined – particularly as Faisal has already died by accident, the only moment which prompts any reflection on whether or not the mission should continue. Even then, this reflection only comes from Omar, whose insistence that “the mission is off” leads to no epiphany.

The most revealing declaration in Four Lions comes when Omar tells his team that this is “our jihad”. Our is the key word: this is a comedy about the meaning of death, and how it varies for individuals. Even if Omar is the only one who consciously articulates his motives, saying that he wants to join the Mujahideen to avoid being a lone eccentric who suffers an absurd demise (like Khalil Ahmed, the only person killed in his failed suicide attack on Glasgow Airport in 2007), the group plan their atrocities because their lives feel without purpose. Once Omar has angrily told Waj, who suggests blowing up a branch of Boots, that “we need to think bigger than a chemist” and consider their place in history, his fate is sealed – when it comes, its foreseeability prevents much laughter, and the lack of insight into his character forestalls any sympathy.

Despite everything, Omar, Barry and Waj all kill innocent bystanders. This mirrors real life – Hasib Hussain, the youngest of the 7/7 bombers, killed himself later than planned, as he had to go to WH Smith to buy batteries before boarding the No. 30 bus that he eventually blew up in Tavistock Square, killing 13 people. In his depiction of the ‘lions’, Morris cuts through the media portrayal of ‘Al-Qaeda’ as a highly organised and deadly efficient international state, but stops short of writer Jason Burke’s assertion that it never actually existed in the form that Western media dictated.

Four Lions took Morris three years to research: its completion was further delayed by his difficulties in securing funding, as Channel Four and the BBC both rejected the film as too controversial – perhaps because of its subject matter more than its script, but primarily because of its director’s reputation. After exposing both form and function of their news coverage with his Brass Eye special, Four Lions suggests that Morris felt that he could no longer cover important issues by ridiculing the most powerful people involved with them. The result is a film that is typically hilarious, but as unclear of its aims as the terrorists it mocks, and indicative of a brilliant mind operating under commercial restraint.

18 September 2011

Football writing

I've decided to collect all the football writing I've done for various blogs together in one place, for anyone who's interested.

First up, all of my pieces for the multi-award winning In Bed With Maradona are here - personal favourites include:

Diagne and the Racial Politics of Les Bleus - on Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne, the first African elected to the French Assembly, and his son Raoul, the first black player to represent France and the first manager of the Senegal national team.

Poland and the War - on the Polish national football team before and after their epic 6-5 loss to Brazil in the first round of the 1938 World Cup.

Extraordinary - Justin Fashanu at Torquay United - surveying Justin Fashanu's spell at the South Devon club - the only time that an openly gay footballer has played in the English League.

I also wrote this piece for The Equaliser's 1980s month on Fashanu's famous strike for Norwich City against Liverpool - Justin Fashanu and the Meaning of the Goal

Here are Part I and Part II of 'The Revolution Must Be Televised' for IBWM, calling for better football coverage.

And here's my article on France's great lost talent José Touré - which was featured in the Lewes FC matchday programme for their game against Staines Town, attended by the Socrates football bloggers group.

Finally from IBWM is my piece on The First Football Films, Die elf Teufel and König der Mittelstürmer, both released in Germany in 1927.

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Recently, for The Real FA Cup, I wrote about my return to my hometown for Horley Town vs Corinthian Casuals, in 'Finding Horley' - one of my very favourite pieces.

For the wonderful European Football Weekends site, I wrote two match reports - one on Olympique de Marseille vs Paris Saint-Germain in March 2011 and the other from Norwich City's trip to Chelsea in August.

Sticking with Norwich City, this contribution to Ghost Goal's 'My Favourite Goal' series focused (predictably) on Jeremy Goss's memorable volley at Bayern Munich.

I kicked off Twisted Blood's brilliant 'Through Gritted Teeth' series with an entry about my grudging respect for Ipswich Town captain Matt Holland and his team's commendable Premiership campaign in 2001.

For the ever-acerbic (i.e. potty-mouthed) Surreal Football, I wrote a piece on French World Cup and Resistance hero Étienne Mattler.

And for Northern League Day, I documented Chris Waddle's journey from Tow Law Town to European Cup finalists Olympique de Marseille.

Also on L'OM, I wrote a piece for Greg Theoharis's Dispatches from a Football Sofa, explaining to defend (or even explain) my love of the club, and the twisted moral universe that they inhabit - Confessions of an Armchair Immoralist.

Last but definitely not least, I compiled a list of the ten greatest French club sides of all time for French Football Weekly.

Part I (Introduction/10th place)
Part II (9th/8th place)
Part III (7th/6th place)
Part IV (5th/4th place)
Part V (3rd/2nd place)
Part VI (1st place)