Episode 1: Beeshu’s nightmares
Images and videos, mostly amateur ones, of the Syrian upheaval have shown demonstrations gathering hundreds — if not thousands — of protesters in the streets. Many are chanting, singing, dancing dabke or even playing music. These movements and the clampdown that followed have pushed citizens to find safer approaches to resist the regime. Satire is one of them.
Top Goon, Diaries of a Little Dictator is a finger puppet show featuring Beesho, a caricature of president Bashar al-Assad, that was put together by a group of ten young Syrians. Mashallah News had the opportunity to interview Jameel, who came up with the idea.
The concept of Top Goon came about during the second month of protests. Jameel and some of his closest friends, all people he trusted, sought a way to share their political views, without putting themselves in danger. They wanted, as he put it, “to bring a smile on people’s faces.” To spread hope and a will to move forward were their mottos. The show’s first episode was aired in November 2011 only on internet.
Beeshu: the capricious little dictator
The parody scorns al-Assad and turns him into a wayward and silly dictator, always supported by his devoted shabih (thugs). Another character is the pro-regime TV presenter The Rose of Damascus, in reference to how the magazine Vogue named al-Assad’s wife in an article dealing with her everyday life, when protests had already started in Syria. There’s also the demonstrator, known as “The Peaceful Protester”, who represents all those in the streets.
The project started in Syria where the scripts and trailer were written and the puppets were made. The first episodes were even recorded in the country. But the group realised they had to move the shooting of the following episodes to another country. “It wasn’t safe anymore,” explains Jameel, “it is already very dangerous to film with a mobile phone these days, so imagine us with all of our filming equipment and the sound system. It was simply not possible anymore.”
The Syrian street is a great source of inspiration for the Top Goon crew. Nevertheless, the biggest stimulation, which continues to spur their creativity, is al-Assad himself. Jameel: “We sometimes don’t even need to write the script. Bashar does it for us.”
Episode 8: Beeshu’s birthday
Each episode is built around a topic, dealing with a specific aspect of the revolution. It could be about the ill-treatment of the jailed demonstrators in “Investigation”, or the biased Syrian media in “Prostitute Media”. The five to six minutes long episodes are a way to condemn the Syrian regime, while bringing laughter.
Smiling to reprisal
The ninth episode, “Reforms”, mocks al-Assad’s surreal speeches, where his followers show their support through shouting things like “You are God!” In his oration, Beeshu — like Bashar — promises to implement reforms. His frequent slips of the tongue show the huge gap between his actions and declarations: “Changing the constitution will place the area of Qaboon above everything else… I mean, that will place the law above everybody.”
In the last episode, “The Devils”, Bashar is haunted by two devils who fight for the best solution to stop the protests. Killing them, jailing them or cutting off electricity and communications? Beeshu eventually scares the devils off by even more gruesome plans for torture and a complete annihilation of the population.
The conversation with Jameel shifts focus to that of the protesters. The artist movingly talks about the life of those murdered; those who laughed, danced, chanted in the streets. Through the series, he wants to celebrate these lost lives.
Jameel and his team feel very strongly about this issue. They want for the viewers, when watching the episodes, to realise that the protestors are not just numbers. “They are people, who have lives. Those who are killed had dreams; they shared memories with many — lovers, family and friends. Those who are dying are not insects: they are human beings like you and me. They could be anyone,” says Jameel.
Episode 9: The reforms
The artists’ role
“If the artist doesn’t do anything, who will?” answers Jameel when asked about the artists’ role in the events. He condemns the official stance that many celebrities have taken. These, he says, “thought they were heroes, but acted like cowards.” On the other hand, a lot of the opposition’s work, like songs, programs and graphics, is made by young artists.
Another important aspect of their work is showing the rest of the world that the opposition is not marginal, armed gangs or terrorists as the regime claims. “No,” he says, “it’s you, it’s me, the artists, lawyers, thinkers, journalists. We’re people from all professions, backgrounds, age, classes and gender. What we all have in common, is that they believe in peace”.
Jameel and his team are well aware of the risks they are taking for producing the show. They have been receiving threats, even though mostly insults, but have been taking all the precautions possible. According to him, it is not bravery but rather a duty.
Hope for the future
“Why did we choose humour to talk about the uprising?” This question brings a wistful Jameel, even though he answers without any hesitation: “Bringing a smile on people’s face is our way to protest: when you turn this violence into derision, it breaks the cycle of fear”.
The taboo around the virtually sacred image of Bashar is something that Jameel hopes to end with the show, in a country where one is allowed to curse God but not the leader.
The support of the show was more than expected: to this day, almost 99,000 people viewed the videos on their YouTube channel “I also never would have thought that we would get that many viewers, but nothing surprises me anymore”. One of their episodes was even aired in an exhibition dedicated to Arab revolutions in Italy this year.
The team is now searching for funds to be able to shoot their second season. It has been quite tricky for them to find individuals or organisations willing to fund the project without wanting to interfere with its independence.
“It’s not useful, with all this horror and bloodshed happening, to add more sensationalism and whining than there already is. It makes people even more pessimistic toward the movement” concludes Jameel.
Episode 10: Devil