In the weeks following the attacks of 9/11, both Britain and the U.S. passed sweeping new antiterrorism laws. In America, the target became largely non-citizen terrorists. In Britain, which has over a million Muslims, the laws also allow the detaining or house arrest of British citizens. Under their system, someone charged has the right to an attorney and court hearing but the government can re-arrest on the same charges as soon as the person is released. Rightfully so, British Muslims see these laws as aimed directly at them. Four years after 9/11, in the summer of 2005, a series of suicide bombings paralyzed London and killed 56 people, including the four bombers. When the bombers were identified as British-born Muslims, some began to debate why apparently good British citizens had committed these terrible acts.
Filmmaker Peter Kosminsky (White Oleander) was one of these. Aided by a pair of Muslim researchers who interviewed people in their communities for 18 months, he wrote the script for Britz, which he also directed. The drama is about a brother and sister born in Britain to Pakistani immigrants. Sohail and Nasima are well-educated and seem a part of Western culture — at least outside their parents’ house — but their lives take radically different paths. Sohail, trained to be a lawyer, joins the British Secret Service while his sister, a medical student, becomes increasingly radicalized. The drama unfolds in two parts — the first is Sohail’s story, the second Nasima’s — and concludes in the shocking moment when their paths cross. In an interview, Kosminsky offers his thoughts on this heartbreaking film.
What was your inspiration for “Britz”?
Peter Kosminsky: I did a film for Channel 4 called The Government Inspector, about the government weapons inspector David Kelly, who committed suicide during the government’s involvement in the war in Iraq. It was a cause celebre in Britain at the time [March 2005]. At the time, bombs were going off in London, it was the summer of 2005 and it became obvious very quickly that a number of people involved in the bomb plot, although of Pakistani origin, were born in Britain, brought up here and educated here. I wanted to try to understand how it was possible that individuals who had so many ties with the British people would want to do something as extreme as strapping a bomb to themselves and blowing themselves up in the middle of the capital city. So that was the start of trying to get under the skin of the second-generation British Muslim.
Can you talk about how the research led to these two characters?
We had two researchers working full time on the film for about 18 months. One of them was a British Muslim from Bradford and she interviewed something like 30 or 40 people with a similar background in London, Birmingham and Bradford. From the transcripts of these interviews [we got] some of the feelings we had to put together.
Where did you film the Pakistan scenes and what was that experience like?
I’ve filmed all over the world but never anything like filming on the subcontinent. We shot in India rather than Pakistan because of the level of sophistication of the Indian film industry. We chose Hyderabad because the center of the city is almost exclusively Muslim and much of the signage is in Urdu, which is exactly what you would see if you were in Pakistan. At no point did I ever feel in danger or threatened. I felt much more frightened in some parts of London late at night. But you are dealing with massive numbers of people who come out on the street when you produce a camera. If you have a film crew with actors and lights, you can be dealing with 30,000 spectators. It’s hard to film with that many people standing around talking and shouting. It was a nightmare, but I was pleased with what we were able to capture.
Are the British antiterrorism laws more stringent than ours?
We’ve had a whole raft of new laws come in since 9/11 and some of it is, by any standards, fairly draconian. It’s in the same kind of spirit as the Patriot Act, but I don’t know the details of American legislation. I think we both have a legal system built on the concept of habeas corpus and many people here — including our organization Liberty, which is the equivalent of the ACLU in the States — are of the opinion that these new rules are an attack on the concept of habeas corpus, which goes back to the Magna Carta. What I was trying to do was show how the Muslim population of Britain –and there are more than a million of them here — feel that a lot of that legislation has been targeted directly at them.
You aired “Britz” just months after the London bombing. How was it received?
Pretty well, really. As always, when you are making a film that’s intended to ask awkward questions, there’s a range of responses. And I was particularly focused, not surprisingly, on the responses coming from the Muslim community, which were broadly positive though there were some minority responses that were less encouraging. Some people felt that just to depict a suicide bomber was to further demonize British Muslims, which was obviously a fairly straightforward point to deal with as we were trying to understand how British-born Muslims might become suicide bombers. The other one, which I found more troubling, was a certain strand of thinking that it wasn’t appropriate for a non-Muslim to write such a story. I found that troubling because when you get to the stage wherein only the Muslims can write about Muslim affairs, I found it absolutely ghettoizing and a-liberal, really.
But the response was incredible. We had a host answering questions on a webpage after transmission of the second film. It [ended] about half past 11 at night and we had over 100,000 hits on that site in 45 minutes, which is a record for Channel 4 for a single program. That site continued to attract hits for weeks afterwards. And there are still Facebook groups discussing it a year later. So it did touch a nerve here. I got a puzzling number of letters thanking me for sharing the reality of what it is like to be a Muslim in Britain. Others did say it was an unfair depiction of the laws in Britain.
But the things we showed, like if our [court] quashes a control order, the home secretary can reinstate it the next day on the same evidence. [This puts] the executive branch above the judiciary in a way that we find very scary. Some people did not want this highlighted, obviously.
How did you research what Nasima did after she went back to Pakistan?
There are a fair amount of other sources. German authorities found a book dubbed “The Bomber’s Handbook.” It had a lot of details. For example, the scene where she appears to be blessed before she goes on her mission is verbatim from that book. We were careful to make deliberate mistakes in the bomb building so if you followed the film there would be no explosion.
What do you think is necessary to create more understanding between the West and Muslims?
This is just my personal opinion, [but] I think the genie is out of the bottle and it will be hard to put it back in. There has been a sustained period of policy, specifically from Britain and America, which has undone decades of goodwill, particularly in the United States … shifting [the U.S.] into a position where it is perceived as an enemy of the Muslim people. It won’t be a matter of repealing legislation or cutting back on rendition. From talking to people, I think it has sort of entered the DNA a bit and I think it will take really positive steps particularly by Britain and America to redress the wounds, to overcome the impression that it’s actually part of the public policy of our two countries to go off on the Muslims as a race, as a nation, as a religion. I’m not clever to know the deep down machinations of Bush and Blair. It’s complex and beyond somebody like me to figure out. But I do know, because I’ve interviewed a lot of people, that the level of anger and alienation is intense in Britain and a lot of [British Muslims] do march off to these camps now.
For people like myself who are a little bit older and have lived through various phases of world affairs, it’s very depressing to be caught up in a time when nations, for one thing, should be bigger than this, more statesman-like than this, take a longer view than this. They are behaving like cowboys on the international scene. I just hope it comes to an end as soon as possible.
A lot of British Muslims have no time at all for al-Qaida and that kind of stuff, but they see the battle lines being drawn up along religious lines and so whatever their view, they are placed in a particular camp because they are Muslims. We all know what happens when we do that. You get extermination camps and hatred that lasts generations. That’s why I say, as a Christian, I don’t think these problems will be quickly resolved.
But I am quite a pessimistic bloke, really. And I could be wrong.