We learned this week that two Americans were killed fighting for ISIS in Syria. There are likely to be many more as the Arab world’s long, awkward transition away from authoritarian government breeds more violence. It might be helpful for Americans to develop a better understanding of what’s driving violent fundamentalism, but we have little to work with.
The best film ever made about the lure of armed jihad among Western-raised Muslims is Four Lions from 2010. It’s tragic, dark, and in a way only the British can master, guiltily, gut-bustingly hilarious. The film was a minor success in Britain and on the international film festival circuit.
Four Lions earned a brief burst of attention in 2013 for its eerily prescient portrayal of a scenario nearly identical to the Boston Marathon bombing. From the details of the attack itself to the bumbling, awkward cast of characters, the film may be the first example of Westerners beginning to grasp the forces behind Islamic terrorism.
Unfortunately, even with the additional attention Four Lions did not get a lot of play. Audiences unfamiliar with Britain found the film utterly impenetrable.
Some form of translation might have helped around the margins. The characters spoke in what could perhaps be better described as a dialect rather than an accent. A working-class Birmingham accent is pretty far removed from global English. Add to it the nuances, idioms, and additional layers of accent common to the South Asian community there and you get an intricacy that can only be interpreted through commentary. Imagine trying to translate Pulp Fiction into Middle English and you get a sense for the challenge.
That said, Americans are starved for authentic, credible portrayals that might help them wrap their heads around the phenomenon of modern terrorism. In the absence of something that makes sense, we have portrayed foreign terrorism in comic book terms, conjuring images of bizarre, savage super-villains beyond the range of human feeling.
A distorted and frankly paranoid misunderstanding of foreign terrorism is breeding poor policy and blinding us to the growing dangers of domestic extremism. This film could help, but only if it was remade. Four Lions, as originally produced, is simply too authentically local to translate to a more global audience.
Despite the challenges, if you’re reasonably comfortable with British entertainment Four Lions is a must-see. Hopefully someone in Hollywood will pick it up and find a way to translate it without destroying its impact.
Four aspiring Jihadis on their way into London for a mass suicide bombing: