Part comedy-concert film, part documentary, Ahmed Ahmed's Just Like Us, opening in limited release Friday (6/10/11), is an enjoyably sprawling travelogue with a point.
And while the point - that humans of all nationalities, ethnicities and beliefs share the ability to laugh - may seem obvious, this seems like a moment in time when that's not a bad thing to remember.
Ahmed, an Egyptian-American comedian who grew up in California, is a funny guy with a serious side who had been part of Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show, a documentary about a comedy tour that played 30 shows in 30 nights across the United States. For Just Like Us, Ahmed assembled a crew of Arab-American comedians (as well as a few of other ethnic derivations) and took them on comedy tour of the Middle East, filming all the while.
Though there is a certain level of culture clash (censorship in Dubai, laws regarding what women can and can't do in Saudi Arabia), Ahmed and his crew find receptive audiences, ready and willing to laugh at American stand-up humor that's sharp, if not pointed. Because he was filming more than a year ago, he can't go into the questions raised by the Arab spring - but you have to figure that, had he been trying to shoot this year, he probably wouldn't have been allowed in certain places anyway.
But Ahmed isn't making a political film. Instead, he's looking for the common thread that connects the comics and their audiences - and the Middle Eastern audiences with American ones. The ability to laugh - at the jokes, at themselves - is the connector, the one that humanizes the audiences Ahmed plays for to the one that watches this film.
Which is about as deep as Ahmed wants to go here: that, despite media portrayal of Arabs in the United States, their concerns, needs and desires are the same as ours.
Meanwhile, he introduces an audience that might otherwise not see them to the comedy of Arab-American stand-ups like Maria Shehata, Maz Jobrani and Omid Djalili (who is actually British), as well as comedians like Tommy Davidson, Tom Papa and Sebastian Maniscalco, among others. But their interactions with people on the streets of cities like Dubai, Riyadh and Beirut are as intriguing as their performances before audiences in those cities.
Because, well, the title says it all. Just Like Us is a step in the right direction to breaking down barriers that media often throws up simply by refusing to look past soundbites and stereotypes.
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