The invited audience reacted with pin-drop silence for
several minutes as the credits began to roll after the
screening of Peter Kosminsky's new two-part drama, Britz,
at Channel 4's studios last week.
Britz is undoubtedly a gripping thriller in its own right,
let alone a film that dares to address so many sensitive
issues. It is, quite literally, an explosive piece of work.
But no one - including me - got up at the end for a round
of applause. It's not the sort of thing you feel like doing
after watching something like this.
Shown in two parts, the cleverly interwoven, yet
idiosyncratic stories of Sohail and his sister, Nasima,
Britz is designed to bring these young, thoroughly British
(Asian) Muslims into our homes and humanize them before
sending them on a journey that takes both characters onto
paths of opposite extremes, shocking our stereotypical
attitudes towards them every inch of the way. But this is
not a film about Islamic fundamentalists. When Nasima is
told that she will be 'sitting at the right hand of God'
and replies 'that's not why I'm doing it,' the viewer is
already aware of what she is planning by now and praying
she doesn't. But the empathy for her is probably even more
profound than it is for her 'patriotic' brother.
Even as an MI5 operative Sohail (played by Riz Ahmed of The
Road to Guantánamo) undergoes racist abuse at the hands of
the police, which he points out only alienates people
further. And when seeking assistance from the British
Consulate in Islamabad he says, 'I didn't think these
places were for people like me,' it echoed of a time when
the British Embassy there refused me any help when I'd been
abducted. However, one of the scenes takes Sohail to a
secret detention facility in Eastern Europe where he
interrogates a suspected Al-Qaida mastermind, despite his
appalling physical condition and the absence of any due
process. This especially resonated with me and when I met
MI5 agents in places no dissimilar to it. And my sympathies
for him began to shift. My work with Cageprisoners.com
highlights the multitude of such abuses as almost
commonplace within the world of 'ghost' detention.
Nasima is a secular activist who believes democracy, not at
all an Islamist. But she is challenged by one, who asks
her: "Name me one piece of legislation that your political
action has over-turned. Name me one new law, designed to
turn Muslims into second-class citizens that you've even
come close to denting. You can't, can you?" Her response in
the negative helps to shape the rest of the film.
Peter Kosminsky came to the front of the theatre, after the
stretch of silence, to answer questions from an audience
which consisted of, surprisingly to me, only four Muslims.
I asked him about why he chose to make this film. He
replied that it was to make people ask more questions about
internal and foreign policy; about spooks as well as
suicide bombers. Indeed, it was to boldly ask the question
whether the effects of personal trauma - in this case
Nasima's best friend who is detained without trial and then
subjected to a control order - , coupled with societal
hostility and a sense of political impotence can lead
someone to the path of violent extremism. And if it can,
are we able to understand? He also commented that this film
was not at all aimed at the Muslim community - quite the
Nasima's recorded message at the end is haunting, yet
chillingly familiar in content, even if not in style. It is
followed by some statistics and a statement:
81% of British Muslims think the War on Terror is a war on
Islam. 91% think the War on Terror has increased the threat
of terrorism in Britain. .
Thirty six Justice bills, six anti-terror bills and five
asylum and immigration bills have been introduced in
Britain since 1997. Many young Muslims feel this
legislation is aimed directly at them.
"I have a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a
police state..." - George Churchill Coleman, Former Head of
Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorist Unit.
There are some improbabilities in this film: Islamists
would never interact with Nasima in the way depicted in
this film, and vice versa. But people will be talking about
the issues raised in Britz long after the award ceremonies