Film Review: Just Like Us

Important, heartwarming and highly informative documentary about bringing humor to the Arab/Muslim world, which—surprise!—is not at all humorless.
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For much of the ignorant world, the prevailing view of Arabs is that they’re all Muslim and humorless, if not downright scary and violent. Ahmed Ahmed’s Just Like Us addresses these dire stereotypes with a humor that is still deeply informed with seriousness. He decided to film his troupe of stand-up comedians on their Cross Cultural Entertainment tour of the Middle East and Arab countries, performing groundbreaking material before sold-out crowds of appreciative natives, many of whom had never seen a real comedy act before.

Ahmed starts by addressing typical Americans’ opinions of Arabs, which are often depressingly stupid, ranging from a white mall girl describing the traditional, concealing feminine garb as “looking like the Grim Reaper” to an Asian woman wondering if “they have a sense of humor.” Racist cartoons are also included in this sorry mix, which, again, invariably confuses and automatically combines race (Arab) with religion (Muslim).

The film then becomes an absorbing tour of Dubai, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, in which each region’s cultural differences and levels of conservatism are explored. Anything goes in sophisticated, cosmopolitan, party-hardy Beirut, but in Dubai, Ahmed confesses that he was banned for making a religious joke. But he admirably doesn’t stint from making that “mistake” again and encouraging his fellows to be as irreverent and shocking as they like.

The humanity of both audience and performers—a merry band, indeed—is the basic, heartwarming core of the movie, and it is a thrill to see the joy these comics inspire. As all the performers attest, the vibrant, chaotic lifestyles in the various cities they visit provide rich material for endless routines. Ahmed does a funny bit about the furtive way Arab men and women hook up via cell-phones, as the culture forbids direct interaction between strangers of the opposite sex. The brilliant, always politically informed Tommy Davidson, of whom I wish there had been more, raps about Obama and how different he is from previous black leaders, and then does impressions of those predecessors. Whitney Cummings, the first female comedian to perform in Dubai, talks about how empowered the supposedly oppressed women she encounters are, and even extols the benefits of the burka. The male comics also share her enthusiasm for it, saying that Cummings was never hotter than when she donned one herself, with all of its mystery-inducing allure.

The work of these funny men—and one woman—proves truly inspirational, as witnessed by the number of young folk interviewed who now want to do stand-up themselves, to the horror of their parents. The very improbability of the performances is a running theme here, especially in countries where even the idea of entertainment is forbidden, and Ahmed is particularly funny and pointed about it, drawing gasps of shock and delight from his entranced audiences.

For all the laughs, a poignant sequence beautifully grounds things when Ahmed visits his family in Cairo and, later, when he tells a cabdriver who came to his show that he reminds him of his father. Tears well up in both men’s eyes, and you might very well be getting a little misty at this point as well.