The Importance of a Good Jihadist Comedy


Most people don't take funny movies seriously. If you want to reflect and be challenged, go see the latest foreign import or dramatic biopic. If you want to escape and be entertained, go see “Due Date” (actually, if you want to escape and be entertained don’t see “Due Date,” but you get the point). In the over 80 year history of the Academy Awards only two genuine straight up comedies have ever won best picture – “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “Annie Hall” (1977). If a comedian wins an acting award, it’s almost always for a “serious” role (see Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg or Mo’Nique). 

But more pervasive (and insidious) than any Oscar bias is the outlook of the average theatergoer who might dismiss the emotional power of funny or even shy from comedies that deal with “difficult” subjects. As Christians, striving to pursue Christ in all things, reverence will often seem more Godly than its opposite. But are we missing opportunities to experience truths about Christ and our human condition (all while laughing so hard we nearly pee our pants)?

The British import “Four Lions” (currently playing on a limited run at various Alamo Drafthouse locations) is the first feature film directed by writer/director/actor Chris Morris – famous in England for his 20 years in comedy, but not so much (at least for now) in the U.S.[1] The film has been described as, “a three stooges movie about wannabe terrorists.” Morris clarifies, “Some people say it’s the funniest film they’ve seen about Jihadi terrorism.” And that’s basically what it is. But (no offense to the three stooges), it’s also so much more.

After several years of meticulous research, interviewing (among others) terrorism experts, Muslims, and government investigators, Morris wrote a script following a group of Islamist extremists living in Sheffield, England in training to be suicide bombers. Morris recalled during a Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival (where the film premiered in 2010):

It seems counter-instinctive to want to make a comedy about this subject. But I was reading a serious book by a man called Jason Burke called "Al-Qaeda" and came across this incident which happened on millennium eve, where these guys in Yemen wanted to blow up a U.S. warship which was moored just offshore. They gathered at three in the morning, put their launch into the water, filled it with explosives, and it sank. And I thought, you’ve got five Yemenis standing around, staring at each other, and what are they going to say?

There were more incidents like that that had unexpected moments of humor. All of this was ludicrous, and these guys were basically pretty foolish. If you get five average blokes to try and organize something, they’re going to screw it up. The dynamics of that kind of group, whether it’s a five-a-side football team or a stag party, it’s going to go wrong. And these kinds of operations are really no exception. Even if they get away with it they only just get away with it. If you remember, even on 9/11 the so-called twentieth hijacker went to flying school and said, 'Listen, I just want to learn how to take off and fly, I don’t need to land.' And you think, this can’t be real.

“Four Lions” is a hilarious, heartbreaking, painful, and (again) hilarious movie about suicide bombers. Which begs the question: is there any value to experiencing uncontrollable laughter where you absolutely (positively, without a doubt) least expect it? Aren’t certain things “off limits”? What about the holocaust? Nuclear annihilation? War? Infidelity? Death?

Well, see “The Producers” (1968), “To Be or Not to Be” (1942), “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), “Mash” (1970), “The Graduate” (1967), or “Harold and Maude” (1971) respectively. I’m serious. Put them on your Netflix queue right now. We’ll wait….

I once heard the writer Dick Keyes speak on humor at a L’Abri conference in Minnesota. Keyes defined humor as “incongruity perceived.” He continued, “we’re created to have dominion over the earth and yet nature is always upsetting that.” We exist in a tension: the life we’re living is not the one for which we were made. The radical duality of our identity in Christ is that we are a “glorious ruin” – separated by sin, but made perfect in Christ. As a result, if we’re living exclusively in either glory or ruin, we’re living a lie. Humor can show us that we’re not all glory or all ruin. Comedy is the great leveler.

Keyes noted that totalitarians and fanatics don’t laugh – they will not accept incongruities. “Humor allows you to grasp something you never had. You’re aware of another reality, another truth.” While Keyes is quick to point out that humor cannot be the only outlet, it can (and should) be one which we (as Christians, as human beings) celebrate.

After all, what is the ultimate incongruity? The God of the universe becoming flesh, a baby, and dwelling among us. The cross, it’s been said, is the greatest moment of cosmic irony. While humor can be misused in a broken world, opportunities abound for our ideas to be challenged and reshaped, to laugh both at ourselves and at the absurdity of the broken world in which we live, and to remember that we are indeed “glorious ruins.”

During the Sundance Q&A, the actor Riz Ahmed (who plays the group's somewhat reluctant leader Omar) spoke about “Four Lions”:

I don’t think it’s a film about terrorists at all; I think it’s about five guys. It was very easy to relate to, because they’re just guys with families and friends… It’s about a bunch of blokes and the social dynamic amongst them.

“Four Lions” pokes a hole in what often seems to be a hermetically sealed world of fear. Simultaneously deflating the power of terror and lifting up the terrorists as flawed humans, the film puts its subject through both glory and ruin. Questions about reverence, religion, and extremism are posed amidst genuine moments of serious emotion and absolute absurdity. “Harry Potter” will be in theaters for months. “Four Lions” might be gone by Thanksgiving. Go see it. It’ll shake you up a little.  

[1] The film is also the first released through Drafthouse Films, a distribution company launched by Tim League, CEO and founder of Austin’s own Alamo Drafthouse.