In another much more serious article, also from The Observer, David Betty writes about a group of puppeteers from Syria who are taking their work on tour in an attempt to bring about a peaceful end to the awful atrocities that are taking place there. If you click on the first image below, you can watch a short documentary made by Betty and Mona Mahmood, about the making of Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator
Syrian satirists take puppet show into war-torn towns to mock Assad regime
Masasit Mati launched the online show Top Goon in 2011 to lampoon Assad. Now they’re taking it to the streets
For a group of anonymous Syrian artists who have mocked Bashar al-Assad and criticised the armed resistance, it is a bold move. Masasit Mati, creators of the YouTube finger-puppet show Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, have begun to perform the satirical series live inside the war-torn country in an attempt to bolster peaceful protest and spur the revolutionary art movement.
The series, which will be shown in London next month as part of the Shubbak festival of Arab culture, caricatures Assad through the puppet Beeshu, the brutal, childish son of a dictator with a beaky nose and saucer-shaped ears. He is protected by his sinister and unquestioning henchman, The Goon, while ordinary Syrians are portrayed as brave and idealistic.
Speaking via Skype from Lebanon, the show’s director, Jameel, said they decided to use puppets to protect the identities of the 10 artists involved and because their small size “was a good way of lampooning the regime that presents itself as godlike”.
The episodes were filmed in Beirut, with the puppets and props smuggled out by the artists. “We disguised the puppets, especially the one of Beeshu,” said Jameel. “We gave him a moustache and extra hair. Otherwise, everyone would have recognised him.”
The first series, launched in autumn 2011, attracted more than 200,000 views on YouTube and was broadcast on the Dubai-based Syrian opposition channel Orient TV. But escalating violence and power blackouts shrank the domestic audience for the second and third series. So in January the group surreptitiously travelled into the rebel-held town of Manbij in the northern region of Aleppo to perform live in an arts festival organised by local activists. The town had enjoyed relative calm for a month, with no attacks or kidnappings, but on the day they arrived it was bombed by Assad’s forces, leaving 12 dead and dozens more wounded.
“We were very shocked and the organisers of the festival thought it should be delayed,” said Jameel. “We felt we couldn’t wait another week, but we didn’t want to gather people indoors in case there was another air strike. So we performed some of the episodes in the street during a protest [about the bombings].”
Top Goon draws on Assad’s speeches and biased state TV coverage of the uprising to highlight and subvert the regime’s propaganda.
In the episode Prostitute Media, a protester is forced to confess to being a violent criminal on an official news programme, saying: “I held an olive branch in my hand … I mean I was holding an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade], a nuclear bomb, pistols, rifles I got from al-Qaida.”
The series has also been critical of the armed resistance. In the episode Monster, Beeshu tortures a protester and taunts him to take his revenge. The prisoner attacks and strangles the dictator, who then gloats: “I told you, you’re a monster, just like me.”
Jameel said the live performance was “also about testing out the boundaries of the new regime in the liberated areas”. He added: “It’s one of the regions suffering now from the temptations of the Islamists and sectarianism. We were apprehensive about how they would react to one actress – hearing the voice of a lady who was making fun of a famous singer with this kind of sexy voice. But we felt very welcomed and respected.”
The group is preparing for live performances in Aleppo and the northern regions, which it hopes will support local artists. Arts committees and newspapers have been set up in rebel areas, but some have been shut down by hardline elements of the Free Syrian Army.
“There’s a whole civil society that’s being ignored by activists and the estern and Arab media, ” said Jameel. “We’re trying to come up with a concept of street theatre where we’ll go to an area, put on a show, then teach the people how to make puppets and put on shows. What keeps people alive is bringing them hope.”