Saturday, September 13, 2008

Britz (2007)

The price of liberty and respect.

Review by Moazzan Begg, one of nine British Muslims who were held in extrajudicial detention in the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp, in Cuba.

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 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 opposite.

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 are over.

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