Focus Text 2: Four Lions (Dir. Chris Morris, 2010)
Four Lions is a controversial, low budget British black comedy, which deals with issues of ethnicity and identity in contemporary multi-cultural Britain. It follows the exploits of a group of Islamic extremists as they plot a terrorist attack. Four Lions creates humour that can be categorised as black comedy, satire and farce. The film is an allegorical tale for a niche audience.
What is black comedy?
Black comedy is problematic to define. It is linked with the concept of ‘Gallows humour’; finding things funny in the face of dire and hopeless situations often with the possibility of death. More broadly, though, black comedy has come to refer to finding humour in dark and bleak scenarios. It also refers to comedy where the response of laughter could be deemed ‘sick’ or inappropriate by the ‘establishment’. As Four Lions is a comedy narrative where wanna-be suicide bombers are our focus, it is logical that some of the humour will be very dark.
What is satire?
Satire is a type of comedy that holds “up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.” (merriam-webster.com) Often satire is used as a way of opposing those in power through humour. Satire can be used to highlight hypocrisy and inequality in our society. Satire is can be political, social or cultural. Examples of media texts that use political satire are Have I Got News for You? and In the Thick of It. Four Lions satirises extremism, particularly Islamic fundamentalism and those who chose to sacrifice their own lives. However, Four Lions also satirises the response to terrorism by the British police and intelligence services.
What is farce?
Farce is a very early form of comedy, originating in France and Britain in the 13th and 14th centuries. Its aim is to entertain audiences through presentation of narratives that contain:
- Unlikely situations;
- Physical humour, e.g. slapstick;
- Verbal humour, including word play and innuendo;
- Inclusion of absurdity or nonsense;
- An increase in speed through the narrative;
- A chase scene.
Four Lions delivers its most potent point; the insanity of fighting a war through actions that you know will end your own life, through juxtaposing the serious subject matter with the ridiculous and incongruent use of farce. The director and writer Chris Morris described the film as a ‘farce which exposes the “Dad’s Army” side to terrorism’.
Production and Release
Four Lions had a very low budget of around £2.5 million. When Morris was trying to secure funding to make the film, it was initially rejected by BBC and Channel 4 for being ‘too controversial’.
As a response to his failure to find more conventional funding, Morris suggested in a mass email, titled “Funding Mentalism” that fans could contribute between £25 and £100 each to the production costs of the film and would appear as extras in return. The development of web technologies has opened up web funding platforms for creative practitioners, including film makers, to appeal for funding from generous individuals. Websites like indiegogo.com have become popular ways to find finance, with film makers offering differing incentives for different contribution amounts.
Funding was eventually secured in October 2008 from Film 4 Productions and Sheffield based Warp Films. Production began in Sheffield in May 2009, with the city providing the primary location for the majority of the film, and doubling for London in the third act. The scenes set in Pakistan were filmed in Andalusia, Spain. Four Lions was released in selected theatres in May 2010. It’s limited release reflects both its low budget but also its appeal to a very niche audience. Four Lions went on to make over $4 million at the global box office.
Film 4 Productions is a British production company owned by television broadcaster Channel 4. Since 1982, it’s been responsible producing some of British cinema’s most interesting, important and enduring films. It frequently is part of production partnerships with a variety of other companies ranging from Hollywood companies like Fox Searchlight, Pathé; France’s cinema giant, niche producers like Warp Films and regional film finance agencies such as Screen Yorkshire. Some of Film 4 Productions’ films include Enduring Love (2004), Trainspotting (1996),This is England (2006) and Shaun of the Dead (2004).
Warp Films is an independent British film and television production company that has its roots in Warp Records, a successful, experimental and well respected record label. It funds small, British niche films, like Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and Submarine (2011) and cult TV programmes such as This is England ‘86. It has also been the production company behind the recording and release of live music and comedy DVDs such as The Mighty Boosh Live: The Future Sailors Tour (2009) and Arctic Monkeys at the Apollo (2009).
Unlike other genres of cinema, comedy places more emphasis the writers and performers than on the director. Perhaps it’s because comedy relies on the script and the performances to make us laugh. When viewing a comedy, audiences often evaluate the success of a film based on how much they laughed, not on how engaged they were by the film’s visuals or narrative. It is therefore more important to consider who has had input into the creation of any comedy. In the case of Four Lions, they are:
Chris Morris – Director & Writer
Morris is a satirist, famous for controversial television programmes like The Day Today and Brass Eye. He has often been a figure of hate for newspapers such as The Daily Mail, who have called his work ‘sickening’, ‘shocking’ and ‘irresponsible’. He is a writer, actor and director and Four Lions is his first feature film. Morris spent over three years researching his Islam, terrorism and Muslim culture in preparation for this film. Morris is a very enigmatic personality, who seldom does interviews or public appearances. He won the BAFTA for outstanding debut in 2011. He did not collect the award, allowing the cast members to do so instead.
Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong – Writers
Bain and Armstrong formed a writing partnership in 1999, after meeting at university. They are the writers responsible for Channel 4’s Peep Show. They’ve worked closely with comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, working not only on Peep Show but also writing That Mitchell and Webb Look for BBC2 and feature film Magicians (2007). Armstrong has also collaborated with comedy satirist Armando Iannucci, writing for BBC4’s In the Thick of It and its film spin-off In the Loop (2009), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Bain has also written for In the Thick of It and for and for BBC2 comedy Rev.
There are no ‘stars’ in this film. This is to be expected because of the low budget nature of the film. However, it also raises issues about the prominence of British Asian performers. There are very few well known British Asian actors who have gained the same level of fame, recognition and opportunity as white British actors such as David Tennant or Martin Freeman, or even British African actors like Idris Elba or Adrian Lester. This supports criticisms of the British media suggesting that there is a lack of ethnic diversity in the media, particularly when it comes to leading roles in fiction narratives.
Riz Ahmed (Omar) is a British actor and musician. Four Lions is not the first time that Ahmed has appeared in a film that tackles issues of radicalism and racial profiling. He gained critical attention for his appearance in Michael Winterbottom’s film, The Road to Guantanamo (2006).
Kayvan Novak, who plays Waj is a British Iranian actor. He has worked in television and film. Novak is also one of the creators of Fonejacker and Facejacker for Channel 4’s Comedy Lab. His performance as Waj won him the award for Best Comedy Performance in British Film at the British Comedy Awards in 2011.
The actors who play the other members of Omar’s ‘cell’; Nigel Lindsay (Barry), Adeel Akhtar (Faisal) and Arsher Ali (Hassan) are all typical of British actors, their careers having included theatre, television and film.
Four Lions also features a number of notable cameo performances from faces recognisable to the niche audience. These include Julia Davies (Nighty Night), Darren Boyd (Green Wing), Kevin Eldon (Hot Fuzz ) & Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock).
Age: 25-50. This age range signals that this is not a ‘youth’ film and suggests an audience who have some understanding of the complex issues surrounding radicalisation and religious devotion. It’s more likely that those within this demographic will have more life experience and an increased knowledge of and interest in global current events. This is, of course, closely linked with the socio-economic demographics.
Gender: Male. The target audience is male, as the film offers very little in the way of female characters or issues and all of the main cast are male. One of the key themes in the film is that of male alienation.
Socio-economic group: A/B. For similar reasons as the age range, this film appeals to those with an appreciation of the complexities of global politics and the reasons for the increase in Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist actions this century. The target audience will be those with an extended education and active interest in global news. The audience may also be critical of the responses to terrorism by Western countries. This reinforces the film’s niche identity.
Aside from the usual demographic profile, we can also identify a psychographic group for this text. Reformers are targeted, as they will be the type of audience member that will often be quite liberal in their values and will be critical of the mainstream. Four Lions provides a comedy that is challenging and asks the viewer to consider and evaluate their own perspective and position. It does not reassure the audience in the same way that a mainstream text does. A reformer, niche audience will enjoy this aspect.
Critical Reviews and Audience Reaction
Critical Reviews and Audience Reaction
“Chris Morris, reliably fearless and brilliant, has made a satirical black comedy about Islamic suicide bombers, crucially targeting his sacrilegious energy not at all at the tenets of Islam – what could be more tiresome or irrelevant? – but simply at the activity of suicide bombing itself. It is not treated with the cowed, shocked respect habitually to be found in drama or on the news, but rather cheerful scorn. This is a film in which suicide bombers are not martyr-warriors, or powerful enemies to be hated and feared, but ridiculous bunglers. In the tradition of Chaplin sending up Hitler, Chris Morris depicts a movement of violent berks and prats. In this film, everyone is stupid. The suicide bombers are stupid; the coppers are stupid; even the clever suicide bomber with the gentle, loving marriage and adoring son is stupid: he is the most culpably stupid of all. And this never looks like a cop-out or a moral equivalence of stupidity, but the comic enactment of a generally degraded and absurd culture of paranoid futility.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 6th May 2010. Read the full review here
“There’s a basic problem, though, in that four of the five terrorists are so flamboyantly stupid that it’s impossible to believe that their leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed), would have anything to do with them. Morris and his two co-writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain from In The Loop, are also undone by a desire not to offend the religious. The humour sags badly in the middle as they try to find depth in the supporting characters, with Omar’s traditionalist brother voicing his opposition to violence, and Omar’s young son and beautiful wife expressing their solidarity with suicide bombers. The final descent into death and destruction isn’t funny at all. In the end, Morris’s attempts to explore the boundaries of humour is exploded by a lethal combination of furtive political correctness and transparently terrible taste.” Christopher Tookey, The Mail Online, 7th May 2010 Read the full review here
“What makes Christopher Morris’ Four Lions so daring is that he totally humanizes a group of jihadists. He essentially pulls off “Seinfeld” in Riyadh. It’s a bumbling buddy comedy about a group of petty and pissed-off friends who insult each other and get mad at each other – but who also happen to be British Islamic extremists. But make no mistake, it absolutely takes jabs at Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist bombings and governmental stupidity. However, it comes from the same kind of jokes you would expect from any four friends who are fuck-ups. You could easily replace Islam with Christianity, Scientology, or hell, even the Mormons. The characters are so sharp and rich, and so brilliantly hilarious, it’s like watching the In The Loop mash-up of Dr. Strangelove. “ Brian Prisco, Pajiba.com [Pajiba is a left-leaning critical media website with a reputation for scathing reviews). Read the full review here.
“At a preview of Four Lions, I found myself the only Muslim among 30 very serious film critics. While others looked around nervously, I was cackling with laughter (no doubt to their annoyance). The film worked because it showed a deep understanding of Muslim cultures, and the break between expectation and reality, both of which are rich seams of humour. It was intelligent, not offensive.” Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, The National (A daily broadsheet newspaper in the UAE), 17th March, 2012 Read the article here.
- Like The Fighter poster, this is poster is also divided into two rough halves along a vertical access. Unlike The Fighter, the text is placed on the left half, inviting the audience to access the written information first.
- The text is sans serif and in grey which connotes seriousness.
- The words ‘a film by Chris Morris’ is in capital letters above the title. His name is in bold, suggesting its importance. There are no star names above the title, suggesting it is low budget and for a niche audience. The name Chris Morris will be an enticement to a culturally literate reformer audience.
- The title ‘Four Lions’ is printed in very large, bold, capitalised font to draw attention. The title has associations with Englishness. It also has connotations of masculinity and pride. The Three Lions is a symbol for England, originating on a coat of arms. However, more recently it has acquired an association with football and by extension, English working-class tribal identity. These meanings are important for the film, but they are subverted somewhat. The title also is at odds with the common meaning. It’s Four Lions, not Three Lions. The number also has relevance as the only four cell members head to London to carry out the attack. Lions also have symbolic meaning. An audience would associate Lions with a warrior spirit; an predator with the ability to work in a group to hunt and to attack unsuspecting grazing animals. Of course, there is an intertextual reference to The Lion King (1994), as the protagonist likens himself to Simba.
- Above the title to the right, are four small silhouettes, again anchoring the idea of ‘four’ with the number of characters in the narrative. On closer inspection (the poster draws the audience in for a closer look) and prioritised according to the way in which Western audiences read from left to right, we see the first three figures are positioned in poses and with weapons that we might associate with recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq or with Muslim terrorists. The first is kneeling preparing to fire a bazooka. The second appears to be sat cross legged on the floor, holding a rifle, like in a Jihadist video. The third is standing firing a large rifle in the air, an action that has associations with victory and celebration. The fourth figure is harder to decipher. He appears to be running, carrying something. This is more ambiguous and doesn’t fit in with the other three. Of course, once the audience have seen the film, all of these silhouettes can be related back to particular points in the narrative. Overall, though these four figures can be read as an active group, but not a team, as they are positioned in a way that suggests their stupidity and conflict. For example, the figure holding the bazooka appears to be aiming it at the figure shooting the gun in the air, and the figure on the far right seems to be running away from the other three.
- The film credits are positioned underneath the title in much smaller font, giving them a subordinate priority.The production company logos are beneath the credits, as is conventional, with the certification information in a slightly unconventional position to the right of these logos.The copyright statement is in the smallest text in the lowest priority position.
- The photographic image used, that of a crow perched on a branch with an improvised explosive device strapped to it, is a shallow focus shot.
- The background consisting of blurred greens provide a suitable backdrop to layer the text onto in way that adds to the graphic unity and allows the text to be easily read.
- The blurred background suggests a rural British location.
- The overlapping positioning of the crow over the title anchors the text and image and suggests to the audience that there is some connection between the title and the crow. This creates enigma for and is designed to intrigue the target niche audience.The crow is in the foreground is in focus and is large in the frame.
- The placement of timer on its body, secured by electrical tape is incongruous. The timer and the tape together are part of the iconography of suicide bombers and do not belong on the crow. This signals the genre of black comedy to the audience and introduces the sub-genres of satire and farce.
- The crow is also a symbol of death, although the one in the shot doesn’t appear to be particularly evil. It’s just an ordinary crow. An audience might even feel sorry for it.
- Because none of the actors appear on the poster, the audience understands that this film is likely to be a film that makes a comment on contemporary society. The audience isn’t being attracted (or distracted) by notions of character or stardom.