For the last year and a half or so, I’ve devoured any little bit of information I could find on Four Lions, the new feature by British comedy maverick Chris Morris. Cowritten by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (the creators of Peep Show), it’s a farce that follows a group of jihadis as they attempt to pull off a large-scale terrorist attack in London — only their plans are continually undone by their own egos and petty bickering.
Morris reportedly spent several years researching the story in Britain’s Muslim communities, and after repeatedly being turned down for funding, he and his collaborators turned to the Internet, disseminating an e-mail asking for small individual contributions (in exchange for which you could be cast as an extra). In describing the project, Morris said he was attempting to make a movie that understood jihadis as human beings, which is to say, understood them as “innately ridiculous”:
Terrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and five a side football teams. There is conflict, friendship, misunderstanding and rivalry. . . . At training camps young jihadis argue about honey, cry for their mums, shoot each other’s feet off, chase snakes and get thrown out for smoking. A minute into his martyrdom video, a would-be bomber looks puzzled and says ‘what was the question again?’ On millennium eve, five jihadis set out to ram a US warship. They slipped their boat into the water and carefully stacked it with explosives. It sank.
I was anxious enough to see what Morris would do with the material that I immediately offered to chip in (fifty bucks, which was one of the suggested amounts), but then a couple months later I received a follow-up e-mail saying thank you for your generosity, but Warp Films has stepped in to cover costs. As a token of the production team’s gratitude, all potential donors were promised a frame of footage from the cutting room floor at some point in the future, though so far I haven’t seen anything in my mailbox.
Anyway. The finished film premiered in January at Sundance, to mixed reviews, and though it’s scheduled for a theatrical run in the UK later this spring, there still isn’t any news about American distribution. So unless you live overseas or find yourself on the festival circuit (Four Lions was just announced as the closing film at SXSW), the clip below is likely the closest you’ll get to seeing it anytime soon.
But you know what? I can wait on Four Lions. For one thing, I’m pretty sure it’s a movie I’m *too* excited about. My expectations are so high there’s no way it could possible deliver. That happens sometimes. But moreover, I’ve already enjoyed what I imagine will be the most hysterical moment of jihadi comedy I see this year. And I have the PBS documentary series Frontline to thank for it.
Just last week, Frontline aired a 40-minute report called Behind Taliban Lines. In it, an Afghan journalist, Najibullah Quraishi, is extended an invitation to spend two weeks embedded with a band of insurgents who belong to a network known as Hezb-e-Islami, which, though distinct from both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, is allied with both. Hezb-e-Islami counts some three to four thousand mujahideen among its ranks, primarily in northern Afghanistan. The band Quraishi films, the Central Group, comprises roughly 150 insurgents in the northern provinces of Baghlan and Kunduz.
In the nearly ten years since U.S. and NATO forces invaded Afghanistan, most of the fighting has taken place in the southern provinces, particularly along supply routes originating in Peshawar, Pakistan, and terminating in Kabul. More recently, the U.S. and NATO have tried to circumvent Afghan insurgents by utilizing highways originating in Tajikistan, to the north, which then pass through Kabul and provide easier access to the embattled south. With this change in tactics, the activities of Hezb-e-Islami and the Central Group have taken on newfound significance.
In Behind Taliban Lines, Quraishi tags along as a unit from the Central Group embarks on a mission to attack U.S. soliders and Afghan police on one of the northern supply routes, using mines and IEDs. And — well, things don’t go as planned. What starts out tense and horrifying, with a very real probability of bloodshed, turns into a classic comedy of errors. And the climax — my god, the timing couldn’t be more impeccable. I was eating a bowl of soup on my couch the first time I watched it and laughed so hard I nearly shot swiss chard out my nose.
I encourage you to watch the entire episode if you have the time, but if you’re pressed, start with the beginning of the third act, at the 25:15 mark (click that third little dot down there at the right-hand bottom of the player), and watch through 32:05. You won’t be sorry.