Peter Kosminsky, well-known for his topical political dramas, has taken on post-7/7 Britain in his latest offering, the two-parter, Britz. This is the story of a brother, Sohail (Riz Ahmed, the single “Post-9/11 Blues”, Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo), and his sister, Nasima (Manjinder Virk, Neil Biswas’s Bradford Riots), both born and bred in Bradford, and caught up on opposite sides of the “war on terror”. Predictably, the film is attracting controversy even before its broadcast. Community leaders, unnamed government sources and media critics are already accusing the drama of pandering to extremists and reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. As Channel Four were kind enough to send me Blitz in advance, here’s a (p)review (with a few spoilers, so don’t read further if you want to wait!).
The first part tells the story from Sohail’s perspective. Instead of continuing his studies for the bar, he decides on a more exciting, secret career with MI5. Keen to break out of the “community ghetto”, Sohail tells MI5 that he wants to put something back into Britain, a country that has given him everything. He does so without illusions, also telling his interviewer that the so-called war on terror is driven by the need to secure oil and gas supplies. From the start, it is an uncomfortable journey as Sohail alternates between two views: the pragmatic need to get tough with the terrorists themselves, yet seeing the impact of anti-terror legislation on family, friends and community. He accepts the use of rendition and the torture of a former acquaintance to get information that could save lives and stop an impending attack, but strongly criticises the heavy policing of the community under anti-terrorist legislation. The police are shown as uncaring and racist throughout in their treatment of British Muslims. They call them “F**king Pakis” or offer to force-feed them ham sandwiches washed down with a pint of beer. With Sohail on board, a new plot to attack Britain, linked with earlier attacks, is uncovered by MI5.
The second part tells Nasima’s side of the story. A trainee doctor, she is a committed civil liberties activist, protesting against the “war on terror”. She becomes disenchanted with activism when a close friend is placed under a control order and later, out of desperation, commits suicide. A radical recruiter challenges her: has political activism overturned a single piece of anti-terrorism law, or did the anti-war movement prevent a war on Islam? She cannot answer him and starts down a darker road to becoming Britain’s first female suicide bomber in the plot that Sohail is seeking to uncover.
The first part is very quick-paced and sharply edited, conveying Sohail’s energy and lack of introspection. From the start he seems to know what he wants: his frustrations are with his family, the community, the police or the intelligence services who seem to be getting it wrong in his view, not with himself. But the viewer is not led to understand how Sohail came to find this already well-marked out path. Why does he take up the role of a spy? We are never really given an in-depth answer.
The second part, especially in its second half, is more languid, almost meditative. Nasima, even after taking her chosen path as a suicide bomber, as a mother of Usama (“umm Usama”) seems tortured, in anguish at her decision. Her eyes convey dismay, and she becomes mute, untalking, in sharp contrast to her fiery eloquent indignation as a civil rights activist. There is only resignation at the political logic that has taken her to the path of violence, not joyful fanaticism.
Like a lot of political dramas, the situations and characters seem engineered to get a political point across, and the interweaving of the personal and political is not as artfully done as it could have been. So what are the big points that Britz tries to make?
The stripping away of civil liberties is creating a new suspect community, a situation that is directly exploited by extremists who argue that political protest doesn’t work. Far from being mindless, the terrorists can represent some of the brightest, most committed people around, the natural leaders of a generation. Talk of theology is a distraction. This is fundamentally a political struggle, in which the ends justify the means. Nasima is one of those recruits who “isn’t doing this for God” but because political means have failed and there is only “the propaganda of the deed” left as the final course of action.
Despite the dramatic devices used to heighten the tension, like setting brother against sister, Britz attempts an authentic portrayal of post-7/7 Britain to raise these political issues credibly. Most interesting here are the murky worlds of underground extremism and MI5, both of which seem ridiculously easy for Nasima and Sohail to penetrate. Open recruitment to domestic suicide attacks appears to go on university campuses — this seems incredible in 2007 when surely it is much more undercover. If there are any stringent vetting procedures to get into MI5, we aren’t shown them here: Sohail seems to breeze in after a few gentle questions about his personal life. The world of al-Qaeda, from its recruitment to its training regimes, seemed fantastically feminised too. Nasima and other women implausibly train together with grim bearded men to strip an AK-47 blindfolded and make bombs while wearing red lipstick and dupattas. Al-Qaeda’s religious puritanism has been overlooked here.
More chilling and credible are the banks of Urdu-speaking Aunties in MI5, transcribing bugged Urdu and English conversations from Dewsbury and elsewhere. (A running joke in the Muslim community is that every time your mobile phone clicks, you assume that the spooks are listening in.) Also featured is a huge Star-Trek-style computerised map of the Operation Crevice network, in real life the largest anti-terrorist investigation conducted in British history. The real case established the current premise upon which the authorities say they are now working, namely that the British-based terrorist cells have loose connections with each other, ideological, social or otherwise, often with links back to Pakistan.
In this network analysis, Mohamed Sidique Khan’s charred sim card thus becomes the “crown jewels” in Britz, by which the deceased “node” is seen as the key to the rest of the “network”. The tiresome trawling through networks and contacts portrayed here seems closer to the routine world of intelligence work than Spooks is. Sohail derides the discovery of five new “clean skins” from a paintballing session involving three of the 7/7 cell as a fuss over nothing, but they in fact turn out to be behind a new attack that MI5 later manages to avert. The high-tech portrayal aims, perhaps, to allude to a lack of human intelligence, in which the cultural insights and expertise of Sohail are fatally devalued.
Yet despite these flaws, Britz remains a powerful and watchable drama that does not shy away from the crucial point that no amount of cultural and religious stereotyping will make the politics of the war-on-terror go away.
Britz will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Wednesday 31st October at 9pm (part one) and concludes on Thursday 1st November at 9pm (part two).