Q+A: Riz Ahmed

An interview with the star of Chris Morris’s new comedy, Four Lions.

You've worked with Chris Morris, the director of Four Lions, for a while. How did you meet?

Through Mat Whitecross, who co-directed The Road to Guantanamo [which Ahmed also starred in]. He was a mess of hair and luminous bicycle shorts with bright red socks. I was like, "Who is this guy?"

But you seem to have hit it off.

He turned out to be one of the most intelligent and fun people I had ever met. We spoke about everything and nothing every couple of months for about three years.

So it wasn't just about acting?

I didn't really think he had me in line for a role -- I mean, I kind of secretly hoped he did.

He is known for being quite an elusive character. How would you describe him?

He's just genuine. In an industry full of bullshitters, he's a bullshit detector. His approach is a combination of incredible intellectual hunger and "OK, let's throw our shit against the wall and have fun".

Morris's comedy, especially Brass Eye, has been controversial. Did you ever feel that, with a comic film about jihadis, he was pushing it too far?

He was never trying to be controversial. The subject of terrorism sets off alarm bells in all of us, but he was in it to make a funny film. The god of his church is: what's funniest, how do we make this funnier? We've done things that are provocative, but that's not the main aim.

Were you worried about what sort of impact the film would have?

I just want people to go and see it, and laugh and be blown away by it.

Is it a sign of a healthy society that we can laugh at things like terrorism?

Yeah, I guess. It's good when people can laugh at things that they feel uncomfortable about. But the source of the comedy here isn't suicide bombing or terrorism -- it's these four guys and their group dynamic. It's about the people in the room, not the furniture.

You dealt with similar themes in The Road to Guantanamo. Did you enjoy approaching them in a different way?

Yeah, it was fun to do comedy. It's a different kind of skill -- I think it's harder.

Do you worry about being typecast?

I started acting on post-September 11 terrain, when there were lots of those storylines around. But I'm lucky to have done films that deal with those issues, and add nuance or subvert assumptions. I'm not restricted -- my last few projects haven't been anything to do with that.

Do you feel like you're being held up as some kind of role model for young British Muslims?

I don't think I am, No. I mean there is a kind of journalistic obsession with that, but I'm never going to play buxom blondes, am I?

You're a musician as well as an actor.

Yeah, that's what I'm doing with most of my time. I'm releasing an album in September, and I've created a mad live show to coincide with it. It's a kind of interactive, narrative gig -- there's almost a kind of sci-fi concept to it.

So, is performance important to your music?

Live music is changing. Cinema is, too -- films are so easily available, you have to add value to the cinema experience. Live performance is just part of what I do, but it's the part that I enjoy most.

People tend to think of artists in terms of one medium. Do you think that's changing?

The ways we experience different things have all been muddled up now -- we watch stuff on our iPhones, and we go to the cinema to watch opera being screened. It's just about offering more creative, innovative experiences. Which is definitely something I'm trying to do with the album.

Are you a kind of polymath?

No, I think I've got attention deficit hyperactivity disorder -- in all seriousness. It's just never been diagnosed. I can't focus on things. I think it says more about my deficiencies than my skills.

Are you political?

Everything is political, but in the narrow sense of the word, I'm not that interested. Politics is a very wide concept, though.

Is there anything you regret?

I regret not giving more time to people. Sometimes. A lot of the time I don't care [gives an evil laugh].

Is there a plan?

I hope not.

Are we all doomed?


Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.