“I can’t sleep because of the nightmares!” whimpers Beeshu, a papier-mâché puppet clad in heart-covered pajamas. “Today my nightmare was that the regime was toppled!” The sloping eyebrows and aquiline nose give him away: We’re watching a finger puppet caricature of Bashar al-Assad, the star of Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, a 22-episode web series that mocks the Syrian dictator’s regime.
Top Goon, now in its second season, is written, acted, and directed by a group of 10 Syrian artists called Masasit Mati (after the local tea that’s become scarce since the uprising). As nonthreatening as papier-mâché may seem, criticizing Assad in public was unheard of before the start of the civil war, and producing a show like Top Goon is still incredibly risky. Some Masasit Mati members are based in Syria, others–like the two main puppeteers, twin brothers Mohammed and Ahmad Malas–have fled for neighboring Lebanon or Jordan. Director Jameel, who still has family in Syria, adopts a pseudonym and appears on camera with his face covered.
“Art is one of the most important expressions one can wield in the face of tyranny,” Jameel writes in an online statement. “In the spirit of Syrian street comedy, we began making dolls, creating characters, and writing scripts that would turn the frightening dictator into Bisho, a sensitive, hesitant, fearful, and laughable character.”
Laughable is right: In the first 20 episodes of Top Goon, we see a childlike Beeshu bumbling his way through life–Skyping with Putin, drinking tea, and whining over a birthday present from his “top goon,” the strong-jawed Shabih. “Only 50 killed on my birthday?!” he complains.
The laughter rises from pain. The latest episode, released on Tuesday, focuses on dissonance among Syrian civilians. An Aleppo shopkeeper argues with his daughter, who wants him to close up shop in protest. “If all people went on strike, we wouldn’t be where we are!” she shouts. “What’s our money good for if we live in injustice?” Her dad slaps her, and the episode ends.
The episode seems to reference the growing friction between dissidents, who are divided between those who support non-violence and those who pledge freedom by any means necessary. The divide has taken its toll on the members of Masasit Mati, too. In a story filed less than two weeks ago, Al Jazeera reports on a growing political schism among the show’s 10-person crew. The Malas twins pledge revolution by any means necessary. Jameel advocates peaceful protest.
More than 20,000 people have been killed since the uprising began last March. Beyond Syria’s borders, the foreign press report on endless atrocities. Inside Syria, the press reports little and less. Art and theater–especially of the Internet-borne variety–have become a catharsis of sorts, a public outcry that fills the void left by the media’s silence. “Satire is a way to deal with the brutal violence protesters face,” a pixel-faced Jameel tells Al Jazeera in this excellent documentary about Top Goon. “Hopefully it will be a little outcry that will join their outcry.”