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Top Goon

Syria

In autumn 2011 the first episodes of the Syrian satire Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator aired on YouTube.  With finger puppetry, black humour and sharp irony it lampooned President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, and in two series of thirty episodes has become highly popular in Syria and abroad.

Top Goon’s format is simple.  At five to six minutes, its episodes are short.  The action takes place against a black background, enabling its highly distinctive characters to take centre stage.  Beeshu, the childish, bumbling son of a dictator, is insecure and over-sensitive; a spoiled autocrat stalked by nightmares and paranoia.  Beeshu caricatures Assad perfectly, emphasising the autocrat’s elongated features, beaky nose and lisping speech.  The president is protected by his blindly loyal, unintelligent henchman, the Goon, a sinister figure instantly recognisable as an instrument of Syria’s feared mukhabarat security apparatus.  Ordinary Syrians are also portrayed as idealistic, brave people willing to risk danger and violence to confront the regime.

Masasit Mati, the collective behind the series, consists of ten young, professional artists with backgrounds in theatre, filmmaking, art and journalism.  In the summer of 2011 the group were considering ways in which to contribute to the revolution, and decided on the medium of puppetry for practical as well as artistic reasons.  Top Goon’s director Jameel elaborates:  “The puppetry allowed the group to hide themselves, stay anonymous and thus not to endanger their lives and the lives of their families, but [also] to step over red lines and taboos by using political satire in its utmost form.”  The long tradition of shadow puppetry in Syria has meant that Top Goon’s revival of the popular medium, spiced with with biting satire, has been enthusiastically received by its domestic audience.  It has also enabled the series’ makers to explain its central messages to international viewers with little understanding of the conflict.

The content of the series is varied.  Each episode explores an aspect of the Syrian uprising: the violence of the regime, the country’s supine state-run media, Assad’s feeble gestures towards piecemeal reform.  Top Goon discusses concepts such as civil disobedience, anti-sectarianism and the unity of the Syrian people, and it is this plurality of ideas that has guided the creative process of Masasit Mati.

“First…the group discusses the different main topics they want to deal with,” explains Jameel.  “The topics decided on are worked into scripts and dialogues that involve the different characters. These scripts constitute the basis for the rehearsals with the actors and the director who work on the finalisation of the scripts. After around one month and a half of rehearsals, the episodes are filmed various times from different angles. Once the filming is finalised, the editing process of the episodes is carried out in combination with the translation.”

An overarching theme in the series is the incompetence, venality and delusion of Assad.  Before the start of the uprising, few Syrians dared to publicly criticise the president.  Talking about the dictator – let alone telling jokes at his expense – was strictly forbidden, and the cult of personality carefully cultivated by both Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafeez was successful in precluding creative and journalistic  attempts to expose the lies and dishonesty of the four-decades of Ba’ath party rule.

In lampooning Assad, Masasit Mati sought to break the aura of fear and omnipotence that had surrounded the regime.  “Laughter, irony and black humour were quickly decided on to be the most striking tool, as the Syrian regime put all its effort in suffocating the people’s will for freedom and life”, says Jameel.

In one episode, Reforms, Beeshu gives a speech on his government’s liberalisation policies: double-speak for precisely the opposite.  “We reformed the beginnings…er, I mean, began the reforms,” says the dictator, to wild applause.  “We have instituted a democratic, civil, pluralistic and Nazi-sadistic… I mean normal constitution.  I hereby resign as president…and I’ll become God.”

The media is a recurring theme in the series.  Syria’s state-run television has throughout the uprising flatly denied the brutality of the regime and accused protestors as variously being agents of al-Qaeda and salafi mobs, dangerous to the region and the world.  One episode exposes the hand of the regime behind the smears.  “I held an olive branch in my hand and tried to beat a thug with it” says Samir, a protestor interviewed on a fictional news channel.  The Goon emerges, and warns him to correct himself. “I mean I was holding an RPG…received from al-Qaeda.”

One of the most powerful episodes focuses on Assad’s relationship with international media.  Uniquely, no puppets are used: five minutes of a June 2012 interview broadcast on the US network ABC is shown, unadulterated and unedited.  The host, Barbara Walters, challenges Assad on examples of brutality by the regime against children, cartoonists and singers.  “Have your forces cracked down too hard?, she asks.  “They are not my forces”, replies Assad, “There was no command to kill or be brutal… it’s impossible to give any orders to kill.” The mendacity of Assad is such that it needs no satirising: “[It] was more comic than we could have imagined.  We didn’t even have to make something up,” Jameel told the internet-based Global Post.

Authoritarian regimes have throughout history deeply feared political satire.  Once a subjugated people start laughing at that which is supposed to be feared, a Rubicon is crossed in the relationship between an autocrat and their subjects.  Before Top Goon, the Assad regime had been subjected to some political satire.  Domary, a journal, emerged as Assad père died and Bashar took office, but was swiftly closed down for its criticism of the regime.  The suppression of the opposition through the first decade of the 21st century saw political satire largely disappear from public discourse, and it was only with the outbreak of the uprising in the city of Homs that it tentatively re-emerged.  Artistic protests against the regime took place in Damascus and Homs, and satire again became a weapon of the protestors.

Top Goon astutely tapped this impulse of Syrians to mock the regime.  It showed that the dictator, long portrayed in official propaganda as a godlike, benevolent figure above reproach, is an average human, fallible and prone to mistakes.  And by depicting the lives of ordinary Syrians involved in the revolution, Top Goon has emphasised the non-violent forms of protest that do exist in the conflict.   “Satire”, says Jameel, “was a way for Syrians to deal with the extremely brutal, violent crackdown and culture of death that the regime tried to spread.”

By making art during the revolution, Masasit Mati has shown the Syrian uprising is an opportunity, a catalyst for the creation of a better future.  Interviewed as Top Goon featured in an exhibition on art in the Syrian conflict at the Amsterdam’s Prince Claus Fund Gallery, Jameel emphasised the “merging, meeting and discussing (of) ideas, despite the fear” which has been taking place during the conflict. Top Goon has played a crucial part in exposing the lies of the regime’s narrative of the revolution.  It is the Syrian people – not terrorists, the West or Israel – who are behind the effort to depose Assad and establish freedom.

The efforts are proving successful.  In showing to the world the creative aspects of the revolution, Top Goon has received glowing coverage in the New York Times, Der Speigel, Washington Post and Time magazine; all publications which – like many governments in the west – have been reluctant to endorse the Syrian opposition.  A shift has occurred in the last half of 2012, and earlier this month the US set aside concerns about the makeup of the Syrian opposition and recognised it as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

Alongside Top Goon, other performance artists and protestors have taken satirical aim at the regime in what the New York Times calls Syria’s ‘cultural flowering’.   Residents of Damascus broadcast recordings of anti-government demonstrations in Homs in the streets of the capital, and dyed fountains red in protest at the bloodshed by the regime.  Such acts inevitably risk serious consequences.  The regime remains in power, and while it continues to control the security services, those who poke fun at the president risk very real and very violent repercussions.  A protestor leading street songs against Assad was reported to have been murdered by regime loyalists during the summer, and threats of similar violence have been posted under Top Goon videos of YouTube.

Masasit Mati take such threats seriously, and has taken steps to ensure the safety of those behind the programme.  “We try our best to stay anonymous… our aim is to be of best use for the revolution and therefore, persons or names are not that important than rather the output we’re able to produce,” says Jameel.

What’s next for the makers of Top Goon?  The conflict drags on, and although Russia – the regime’s main supporter – appears to be losing patience with the Assad regime, as 2012 draws to a close, bloody stalemate exists.  The regime is too weak to crush the uprising, but not weak enough to capitulate.  Against this background, Jameel speaks of hopes and plans for 2013 and beyond.  “We feel that the series has contributed something to give back hope and strength to the Syrian people as well as explaining to outsiders the mechanisms and fears the Syrian regime plays on to legitimize its oppression.  Our next aim is to be able to go inside Syria and perform the play live to the Syrian public in the northern parts of Syrian in a way of showing our solidarity with our compatriots inside the country and to tell them that we don’t leave them alone and most importantly did not forget them.”

video

 

This is a trailer for the new Syrian revolutionary puppet series TopGoon by Masasit Mati (group of Syrian artists).

To watch Top Goon online, please visit their Youtube channel

 

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