Just Like Us (2011): Ahmed’s Docu of Middle East through Standup Comics

Director Ahmed Ahmed’s “Just Like Us” contrasts President Obama’s high road with the low road that many Americans sadly still travel: idiotic misunderstandings about the Middle East.

The feature begins with excerpts from one of President Obama’s sobering speeches suggesting that Americans need to understand more about Islam.

Ahmed gives us several interviews, both hilarious and horrifying, with everyday Americans who do not even know the difference between an “Arab” and a “Muslim.” Ten years after September 11, we obviously still have a long way to go. What is it going to take?

No doubt this documentary will help open the eyes of those who get a chance to see it—even those who think their eyes are already wide open. Ahmed’s film is very basic in its intent: to show the human side of the Middle East through a travelogue of a 2009 tour of standup comics that Ahmed organized.

Although not touched on, the ongoing Arab Spring we have witnessed this year lurks in every corner of this film and will hopefully draw attention to its release. We cannot help but look for—and, in fact, readily find—signs of the impending change in the crowds who eagerly gather to hear Ahmed and his friends tell jokes both naughty and nice.

A post–Arab Spring update to the film would be a good idea at some point—perhaps as part of the DVD release? Two years after the featured tour, with the Arab Spring in full force, what is the state of comedy in the Middle East? It must be changing rapidly.

“Just Like Us” works hard to please: it is perky and fast-paced, with a punchy soundtrack, and never dawdles on its way. What we get may not be that nuanced, but that does not mean this film is not a valuable contribution to breaking up some of the misconceptions that keep Americans from progressing—as we must to survive now.

Standup, according to “Just Like Us,” is brand new to the Middle East. The very idea of Middle Easterners or Muslims making fun of themselves and their cultures may take time to become widely accepted, but this film shows that appreciative audiences are already in place. We get mostly snippets of the actual routines, some of which are quite funny, but it is three little Egyptian kids who wander onstage with Ahmed late in the film that get the biggest laughs and offer the film’s finest moment. This scene appropriately speaks to the film’s larger theme: the universality of humor, how it can bind us together despite our differences. Uninhibited, unscripted kids just being kids are an eternal source of laughs—who could hate children as cute and funny as these? Ahmed gets great reactions from them.

Another strong point is how the film shows the diversity of the Middle East. Each country visited is highlighted for what is unique about it. We get concise intros to Dubai, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and see how the comedians have to deftly try to adapt to the wildly differing circumstances in each locale so as not to get banned from further performances or to get the whole tour shut down.

One thing that is missing, perhaps beyond the purview of this film, is a historical sense of comedy in the Middle East. Maybe there has never been standup there, but there certainly must be a long tradition of Middle Eastern humor that the advent of standup is tapping into. At points, the film comes too close to suggesting that no one in the Middle East has every laughed out loud until recently, a position that would only back up the prevailing stereotype in the West of Middle Easterners as “too serious.” It would also be a view contradicted by the film itself, especially when Ahmed gets to his family home of Egypt, which is clearly teeming with various forms of comedy.

The Egypt section affords Ahmed a warm, tender reunion with his Egyptian relatives, which hammers home his humanist theme. It would have been interesting for him to include how his family has supported or not supported his decision to become a comedian. There is quite a lot of Ahmed in this film, including some voiceover narration that does not sound as natural as it should. He is an attractive presence, but “Just Like Us” here and there becomes a film about him, which is not his stated aim. That said, a film about him, his story, would also be of interest.

Credits

A Cross Cultural Entertainment release.

Directed by Ahmed Ahmed.

Produced by Taylor Feltner and Matthew Blaine.

Cinematography, Taylor Feltner.

Editing, Benedict X. Kasulis and Veronica Rutledge.

Original Music, Omar Fadel.

Running time: 72 minutes.