Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chris Morris' Four Lions, and Politics in British Cinema

What has been particularly concerning about British cinema of late is its confirmation of (mainly) negative cultural stereotypes. 2008's Eden Lake portrayed youths as troublesome, knife-wielding criminals (allbeit brought up by ignorant, aggressive parents), and 2009's Harry Brown polarised street warfare with international warfare, once again consigning youths to brassy thugs. Living in Britain, it's difficult to seperate reality from what's written in the papers — there's plenty of smoke and mirrors floating around. The blatantly critical connotations that filter through media coverage of this generation of young people are not without reason, but consistent demonisation threatens to alienate groups of people much more than it aids in uniting them. For instance, do you ever see a photo of a "criminal" smiling in a newspaper, unless the article is angled towards portraying them as some kind of unsympathetic sadist?

I don't mean to get on my Cahiers high-horse about this, but there's something very sinister about wanting to draw attention to members of society already addressed and denounced as morally reprehensible, and firmly within the 'public sphere'. Socio-realist pieces that force our gaze upon dynamics and inequities that we aren't familiar with, such as Andrea Arnold's Red Road, and Paul Andrew Williams' London to Brighton, feel less motivated by modern culture and therefore artistically fresher works.

Not necessarily just since the September 11th attacks, but definitely more so, there has been a hostility towards Muslims in modern Western society. To quote but one reasoning I've heard for the Muslim exclusivity in the 'War On Terror': "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims". Whatever you believe, the increasing scepticism and mistrust of different ethnicities in the UK is very tangible, whether born out of xenophobia, fear, or a mixture of the two. Nationalism in Britain is pertaining to mean 'white'.

Enter Chris Morris, writer of controversial TV show "Brass Eye", which poked fun at people's perceptions of various social issues. His debut feature film, "Four Lions", made a splash at Sundance earlier in the year, and tackles the threat of terrorism in the UK through the plotting of four incompetent would-be suicide bombers living on a London estate.

The Islam religion is not focused upon a great deal, but the motivation of these men (three Asian, one White) certainly conform to those lines of divinity and sacrifice. Thankfully, that's where the conformities of the film end, and there's something wonderfully novel about the way that the characters, even in their murderous aims, emerge as hybrid representations of 'Britishness'. The group act more out of duty to each other, out of duty to a perceived impression of British muslims, than they do from their own instincts and feelings. It may feel like these men are ideologically estranged (if not, why plan to incite conflict?) but Morris offers perceptions of martyrdom and conformity that aren't exclusively "Eastern" or "Western". He eliminates any suggestion of an Us vs. Then mentality by blurring political boundaries.

That's not to say "Four Lions" is perfect, with a bit of a silly, repetitive approach to comedy that wears thin after a while. There are some delicious In the Loop-style quips, which offer snippets of British life ("Let's bomb Boots..." is a particular highlight), but they don't really hit home the frustrations of these four men. "Four Lions" does, however, hit home some of its own frustrations about 21st-century representations of Nationalism, and, for that, must be commended.

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