In November 2011, as armed conflict raged in Syria, a young acting troupe called Masasit Mati launched a ground-breaking, finger-puppet show: Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, which mocks the Syrian regime in ways never seen in public before.
Living in exile, the four actors in Masasit Mati broadcast their show online, attracting a growing audience and positive reviews around the world.
But Top Goon's success puts the actors themselves in danger and the widening split in Syria between those who favour a peaceful resolution and those prepared to use armed force mirrors that within the troupe itself.
Lead writer Arwa is determined to stick to his message of non-violent resistance. The show's actors, the Malas Brothers, support the Free Syrian Army and are increasingly vocal in their demands for violent revenge upon the regime.
Jameel, the show's director, struggles to reconcile these diametrically opposing viewpoints while trying to raise funds to get a second series off the ground.
A remarkable film that explores the conflicts besetting millions of ordinary Syrians as their country edges into bloody civil war.
By Annasofie Flamand and Hugh Macleod
In the Syria of old, no one joked about the president.
The main bridge over the highway in central Damascus may have been known as 'President's Bridge' but no one ever called it Assad's. The ruling family name was barely breathed in public, except to chant pledges of blood and soul during regime-orchestrated rallies.
One of the first young revolutionaries we filmed after protests broke out in the country we called home for several years described the rage he felt after his sister was arrested for telling a fellow student at Damascus University that she did not think President Bashar al-Assad was up to the job he inherited.
Any jokes Syrians might have wanted to crack about their gawky dictator were done so at home, and only among trusted friends.
Then an actor behind a home-made stage raised a long, thin finger puppet in the air, its narrow moustache, pointy nose and saucer-shaped ears glinting in the theatre lights. The actor affected an Arabic lisp, the puppet danced and everything was changed in an instant.
"It was forbidden to talk about the president in any way, but now you can say what you want and this is extremely exciting," said Jameel, the director of Masasit Mati, a group of young Syrian artists who came together as their revolution raged to create the most daring work of political satire in Syria's history.
Using finger puppets of al-Assad, known as Beeshu, his top security chief and a host of women and men from Syria's diverse society, the series of short vignettes, called Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, quickly gained a huge following through YouTube and Facebook.
Audiences were shocked and delighted at the irreverent portrayal of a regime that had dominated every aspect of life in Syria for nearly half a century.
"We tried to make fun of it, to break the glorified image of the dictator," said Jameel. "There are taboos and red lines you could not cross. We tried to break exactly these red lines and destroy them."
Watch only the news on Syria and its revolution might appear limited to protests, crackdown, imprisonment and torture, the ever escalating mindless violence that grabs headlines and eventually morphs into its own entity: 'Violence erupted on the streets of Syria'; 'A fresh cycle of violence engulfs Syria'; 'Sectarian violence stalks Syria' etc, etc. Reporting for nearly a decade from the Middle East, we were all too familiar with the spirit-sapping pattern of conflict journalism.
So when a mutual friend told us a group of Syrian artists were launching a finger puppet show we jumped at the opportunity to re-engage with the hearts and minds of the uprising, the young men and women throwing off decades of stale inheritance, to transform their country, not just politically, but socially and culturally as well.
"They think that once they put pressure on you, you will retreat or stop," said Mohammed Malas, one half of the vivacious Malas Twins, brothers identical and actors extraordinaire, who once staged a skit while in prison for protesting against al-Assad's regime.
Rehearsing the first season of Top Goon in the relative safety of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, Mohammed and Ahmad Malas could barely stop belly-laughing as they and Jameel practiced the songs, wisecracks and slapstick that would turn their two-inch finger puppet dictator into an icon of rebellion for a new generation.
"I'm not crazy!" Beeshu's frantic assertion at the start of every episode fast became a Facebook catchphrase for Syria's young rebels.
But the violence in Syria was inescapable. As the regime's attacks on protesters swelled into military assaults on whole cities and into sectarian massacres by al-Assad's militiamen, the artists found themselves swept up in the great debates which divide Syria's revolutionaries.
Peace or violence?
In the face of daily death tolls topping 100 people, how could peaceful protests continue? Surely it was time to support the burgeoning armed rebels of the Free Syrian Army? Jameel was adamant: Masasit Mati's core belief and message was peaceful change. The group would not publicly back the FSA.
"You cannot build a civic state through violence," said Jameel. "Violence only breeds violence."
Seething in the chaos of Cairo, their new home, the Malas twins took a very different view: "If Gandhi were alive today he would have carried a gun," said Ahmed, furious at the latest news on the TV in the living room. "In Gandhi's day, were there snipers shooting people in the head? Did they rape his mother? Did they kill a whole family? What non-violence?"
With this growing split between Jameel and the twins we knew we had tapped into a story that went to the heart of the Syrian revolution. What had begun with a dream of a better state founded on freedom and achieved through peaceful protests had now morphed into a bloody struggle for survival.
It was in Amman that Top Goon's main writer, Arwa, succeeded in condensing the essence of this struggle. Forced to uproot from his home in southern Syria and flee across the border into the "ghost city" of Jordan's capital, Arwa outlined the choice facing Syria's revolutionaries, if not all revolutionaries: To stay peaceful or to fight back?
On an Amman rooftop at sunset, Arwa reveals the raw emotion behind the intellect, the person behind the words, the sorrow behind the satire. Reading from a fictional letter written to his brother, Arwa describes his feelings at witnessing his best friend shot and killed. He has sold his library to buy a Kalashnikov, he reads.
"So here's the question," Arwa tells us in an interview later, "Is revenge now justified?" Not for the artist, he concludes: "I can only defend non-violence because this is not just a revolution for our generation, but for future generations."
Set to the beautiful song of Emel Mathlouthi, 'My Word is Free', and the haunting oud of Rahim al-Haj - to both of whom we are hugely grateful for the music we feature in the film - we knew our Syrian revolutionaries - through their honesty and aspirations - had given the film that most precious part within any body of work: Its soul.
To watch the 15 episodes of Top Goon, click here.
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