A Comedy About Terrorists?

When you think about topics for a comedy, British jihadists are probably off limits. Well, not according to Christopher Morris whose new film "Four Lions" is about a semi-competent terror cell. Host Michel Martin speaks with Morris and actor Adeel Akhtar about the film and how its being received.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we hear what you have to say about what we've been up to and other stories of the week. That's in our Backtalk segment and it's later.

But first, we want to tell you about a new film that's playing in select theaters and is headed to more cities this weekend. And we think about subjects for comedy and satire. Conventional wisdom might suggest that some subjects are just off limits.

Now, Islamist terrorism would seem to be at the top of the list. But British director Christopher Morris would beg to differ. In his first outing as a director, he's created a story that is straight out of the headlines, but with characters who would be quite at home in the sequel of "Jackass" or "The Hangover," when they aren't trying to plan a terrorist attack.

The film is called "Four Lions." And joining us now to talk more about it is director Christopher Morris and one of the actors in the film, Adeel Akhtar. He plays a character called Faisal. And they're with us now. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER MORRIS (Director, "Four Lions"): Thank you.

Mr. ADEEL AKHTAR (Actor): You're welcome.

MARTIN: Now, Mr. Morris, I'm finding it - I'm trying to describe the film. And I feel as though I'm not quite doing it justice. So I'm going to ask if you would.

Mr. MORRIS: It's a story about what you might call a semi-competent cell of homegrown jihadis. They set off on a mission, they do the normal things. They sit around talking. They plan to go to training camp. They come back. They sort of try and form a plan and they feel the net's closing around them. And so you produce a kind of increasing pace of desperation as you head towards the end.

MARTIN: How did you get the idea?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I got it from reading serious books. But they kept throwing up examples of things, which struck me as pretty silly. The first one was a bunch of Yemeni jihadis who wanted to blow up an American warship with an exploding boat. And they got as far as assembling their plan and their explosives. They put their launch in the water under cover of darkness and they filled it full of explosives and it sank.

I didn't really pay it any mind, but I started to feel that there was a kind of pattern here of guys who were behaving in a pretty flawed way, whether or not they were actually succeeding in carrying out these plots, you know. At the very bottom end, there was some Canadian jihadis who wanted to assassinate the Canadian prime minister and forgot who he was. And the silly examples kept serving themselves up.

MARTIN: So you really weren't intending to make a film about the subject initially - just this was just your own interest.

Mr. MORRIS: No, I can read a book without intending to make a film about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, that would be one of us. So, Mr. Akhtar, why did you want to be in this film?

Mr. AKHTAR: Initially, because I was out of work. But then after I read the script and met up with Chris, I knew that it was going to just be a very important film to make. Just because while we were making it, I had nothing to anchor myself down in because what we were doing just felt very alien and foreign to me. You know, just doing a comedy about jihadis. But as the story went on, I felt more and more comfortable in it, and more and more comfortable telling the story and was really excited about it, getting out there to people.

MARTIN: Help me a little bit, though, with what you were saying initially. You were saying that you had some trepidation a little bit about the subject?

Mr. AKHTAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: You just couldn't envision how it could work.

Mr. AKHTAR: Yeah. Low level fear, how it would work, how it'd land and, also, sort of knowing Chris' work as well, beforehand and sort of feeling a little bit intimidated by all the stuff that he'd done before. I was, like, I hope I do well, you know.

Mr. MORRIS: You're being way too modest. He came in for his first audition and he basically did, at the drop of a hat, a version of the buying bleach scene that's in the film. It blew me away. As soon as Adeel left the audition, I got everyone else in the office in to watch the tape we made of him.

MARTIN: Well, we'll play that scene. We have it. We actually have that clip of the one you're talking about in the film, where he's showing off his stockpile of liquid peroxide, which they hope to make bombs. And he's showing off. He's actually, I think, rather proud of himself. He's brought Barry and Hassan in to show them what he's done.

Mr. AKHTAR: Yeah. Shows his badge of honor.

MARTIN: His badge of honor. And we'll just play that clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "Four Lions")

Mr. AKHTAR: (as Faisal) Liquid peroxide.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Yeah, just stockpile it.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) How'd you get (unintelligible)?

Mr. AKHTAR: (as Faisal) A (unintelligible) down the road.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) All from the same shop?

Mr. AKHTAR: (as Faisal) Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) You're mad. You'll get us nicked.

Mr. AKHTAR: (as Faisal) No, I used different voices every time I go in.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Different what? Different voices.

Mr. AKHTAR: (as Faisal) Different voices.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Show me.

Mr. AKHTAR: (as Faisal) What?

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Show me the voices, come on.

Mr. AKHTAR: (as Faisal) IRA voice.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) IRA voice? They're terrorists, Faisal. Why do you want to do a terrorist voice? You'll get us nicked.

Mr. AKHTAR: (as Faisal) Well, I'd be in disguise, though, wouldn't I?

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Yeah, but as a terrorist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I'm trying - I mean it's so ridiculous. And it's, like, and then it goes on. I can't even talk - he covers his - I can't - I don't know. It's really funny. It's really funny.

Mr. MORRIS: He's sweet as well, isn't he?

MARTIN: He is sweet.

Mr. MORRIS: I mean, your character.

Mr. AKHTAR: Yeah, but he's one of the guys in the group who is willing to be led. On the whole, he's quite a clueless character and pretty unfocused in what his objective is.

Mr. MORRIS: He's got to look after his dad, right?

Mr. AKHTAR: Yeah. Essentially, like, he's got to - his immediate thing is to look after his dad. But I think it's more important for him to belong in a group rather than figure out why the group is together and what it's sort of fighting for, you know.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with Christopher Morris. He's the director of a new film "Four Lions." And with us is one of the actors playing a key role, Adeel Akhtar.

Chris, I want to go back to one of the things you said. There's a sweetness to it that I think people who have, you know, who are listening to our conversation, who have not seen the film, might even be offended by my mentioning that. But there is a sweetness to these men, to several of them, anyway. And they're young. A couple of them are just - are kids and they're interested in stuff that kids are interested in, which is, like, hip hop. And I want to play a short clip from - I'll just play a short clip that I think makes that point. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "Four Lions")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) (Rapping) We're the Muslim mean and we're making terrible scenes. Now you want to know what the boom boom means. It's like Tupac said, when I die I ain't dead. Fight and be slain, die with no pain, got Shahid in my seed for my creed I dahid(ph).

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as character) Eh?

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) (Rapping) We are the martyrs used (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #4: (as character) Bro, what was that? Bro.

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) Now we've got...

Unidentified Man #4: (as character) What was that?

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) For my creed I dahid.

Unidentified Man #4: (as character) What's dahid do?

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) Died. Dahid, died.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: Trouble with his (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Exactly. Some of these guys - Christopher, where on earth did that come from?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I was talking to an intelligence analyst just yesterday who said that out in Somalia there is an American citizen who's gone to fight in Somalia for the jihad over there who posts raps on YouTube. So I didn't know that at the time but, you know, hip-hop culture is quite a bit passive. As you would say South Asian culture in Britain. And why not? You can, you know, a journalist friend of mine spoke to a suicide bomber, who sort of changed his mind at the last minute, who was into Jon Bon Jovi.

So there's a real mish mash of sort of cultural references, which you wouldn't necessarily shed. Particularly if you were Hassan, who is half baked. I mean, he really relishes showing off and being thought of as the radical, which is why his character is the one that really gets in over his head.

MARTIN: One of the characters I found very interesting in the film is Omar and his family. Not just Omar himself, who's kind of the most thoughtful character. He's the one who debates what is being done and why, throughout the film. But he also has a wife and a son with whom he very casually discusses terrorist attacks. And I'm very interested in the way you - how you developed this character.

Mr. MORRIS: I mean you do find people in this position who have families, who have wives and children. And you have different characters in a cell because you have leaders and you have followers. But Omar, the leader of the cell, he has a family. He's got a life of a sort. And he will come to this for strong reasons. I think a composition of reasons.

But there's nothing fundamentally against, look, if he thinks he's a soldier and he's fighting a resistance cause, and forget how you would debate that, but that's what he thinks, then it's not that crazy for him to have the support of his family at some level.

MARTIN: And Adeel, how do you feel about the character in the film when all is said and done?

Mr. AKHTAR: Well, I think that he sort of represents a part of the Muslim psyche. You know, I think all the characters represent different parts of sort of the Muslim psyche. You have Barry who's really angry. Then you have Waj, who's a little bit clueless and ready to follow. Omar and then you have my character, who's a follower as well. So I think he's a representation of how a part of the Muslim, sort of psyche of what's in British Muslim society.

But, overall, like, how I feel about the character personally, I really like him. And I think he's really sweet. And in a different context, I think he would be making the same mistakes, but in a different way.

MARTIN: What's been the reaction to the film - Adeel, I'm asking you this first, and then, Christopher, obviously I'm going to ask you this as well. What's been the reaction as the film has been screened and is now being more widely seen?

Mr. AKHTAR: Well, we just did a charity gig over in Bradford, up north, and the response up there was amazing just because it sort of set up north England. And the amount of people that were just checking sort of quoted us from the film and you know, just hugging us and taking pictures and stuff was just amazing, compared to, you know, down south in London.

So, the reaction's been really positive and especially amongst sort of British, young British Asians and young British Muslims.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. What is the reaction, particularly among...

Mr. AKHTAR: They just - they love it because for the first time, I think it's given them a bit of breathing space, you know. Because for a long time, with Islamaphobia and everything else, I think a lot of them would've felt a little bit constricted or trapped in some way, you know, with media portrayal of who they are and what people think Muslims are and stuff. So it just gave them a little bit of breathing space and allowed them to laugh at the right people, you know.

We're really laughing at the people who just feel as though they're right, absolutely and there's no room for questioning or debate. And so it allows the moderate Muslims to sort of have a sort of sigh and a breath of fresh air.

And I don't know how relevant this is, but I was listening to an interview with Joan Rivers, and her husband committed suicide. And so the first thing she did was make the - do a stand up thing about, you know, suicide, and stuff like that. Because then it just lets everybody relax a little bit.

MARTIN: Mr. Morris, what do you think? Because sometimes people do have care about who makes a film. I don't know if you remember this whole thing around Steven Spielberg when he made the film "Amistad," which is about a historical episode in the United States around a group of enslaved Africans who came and fought for their freedom in court in the United States. And there were some people who were upset that he made that film, as opposed to an African-American making that film.

So sometimes those controversies do exist around cultural pieces. I'm not sure that's the biggest fight you would have to fight around this one, but I am interested in your reaction you're getting and how you respond to it.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, it's called Paksploitation in Britain, and you have to watch out for it. But it's practiced by the normal channels who commission dramas about arranged marriages or honor killings. And when a whole load of mainly British-Pakistani actors came in for audition, time after time, they'd say, sorry about the beard, but, you know, I know I'm going to be called up to be the brother that got radicalized and we have to wear this because I'm going to be a terrorist at the next audition, you know.

So, you're very aware of this problem. And I just took my cue from them. You know, I have Pakistani friends during the research, which took two years before I even started writing and then carried on through the writing and even the filming, and even now it still carries on. And I think I took my cue from them and I was aware that I did not want to be dealing with stereotypes. And, you know, the truth is that the film concentrates on really what's the same about everyone.

I mean, you could say idiocy is a great leveler. And I think people recognize the flawed nature of being human. And I think, really, that's why Muslims in Britain went towards it, because bizarre though it may seem, if you ignore the fact that these guys are terrorists, they're actually just regular folk and that is not how they're normally portrayed.

MARTIN: Christopher Morris is the director and co-writer of the new film "Four Lions." Adeel Akhtar plays one of the leads. It's playing in some U.S. cities and it's slated for a wider release and several more this weekend, including Portland, Chicago and Houston. Thank you both so much.

Mr. AKHTAR: Thank you.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you.

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