Wednesday 7 November 2018

Travel Ban: Make America Laugh Again - Film Review

Written and Directed by Samy Chouia
Starring; Aron Kader, Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed, Ramy Youssef, Paul Elia, Bassem Youssef, Amir K, Feraz Ozel, Travina Springer, Melissa Shoshahi,
Tehran Von Ghasri, Sammy Obeid, Dave Merheje, Peter Shahriari
Running Time: 1hr 31 mins

Travel Ban is the story of being brown and immigrant in Trump's America as told through the eyes of comedians of middle eastern descent.

Aron Kader
I often use the phrase "you have to laugh; you'd go mad if you didn't." In a world in which Donald Trump is now President of the United States of America the world has certainly gone mad... so what we need is some laughter. Samy Chouia's documentary brings us those laughs but with a chilling context. It opens with comedian Aron Kader on stage talking about how America is a tolerant society, where there is no Xenophobia, religious hatred, bigotry inter-cut with footage of verbal and physical abuse against Middle Easterners, Hispanics, generally anyone who is not white American. With this stark juxtaposition Chouia sets the tone for the story that is about to unfold. 

This is less a comedy special and more the chronicling of a journey of American comedians with Middle Eastern heritage, led by Palestinian/American Aron Kader to battle the onslaught of racial hatred in Trump's America the only way they know how - on stage. Watching the film I sensed and empathised with Kader's frustration over the current clime - not just as someone with Middle Eastern blood (my father is Assyrian born in Iran and my mother is English) but as someone who has seen it all before, esepcially following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. Kader narrates on camera much of the tale from his early days as founding member of the Arabian Knights (renamed Axis of Evil) comedy troupe brought together by the legend and godmother of stand up comedy Mitzy Shore; her aim was for there to be a positive image in what she foresaw as a war between America and Middle Easterners. Kader's recollection along with fellow troupe members Maz Jobrani, and Ahmed Ahmed, of Shore's prophetic warning less than a year prior to that horrifying tragedy is certainly chilling to say the least. Kader, as narrator is compelling to watch and listen to, and as a comedian, a very articulate funny guy who makes no bones about his disillusionment with how people view his Arab heritage. If he sounds dejected it's understandable given that he keeps fighting the same fight year after year, but with this comes hope that love (and laughter), not hate is the best way to deal with this situation, as Kader says; "If hate and violence was gonna solve a problem shit would've been solved a long time ago." 

Maz Jobrani
Kader's sentiment of refusing to give in to the haters is inspiring and conveyed powerfully in this film as he sets about putting together his next show the "Travel Ban Comedy Tour". Chouia wisely stays behind the camera and lets Kader and his fellow comedians do the talking, and they all certainly hold viewer attention with their stories and insights. Kader leads the discussion not only to the camera but also on KTLK-AM's The Stephanie Miller Show, and in a bar with fellow comedians Peter "The Persian"  Shahriari, Melissa Shoshahi, Jack Assadourian and Firaz Ozel. Along with interviews featuring Kader's Axis of Evil comrades Jobrani and Ahmed, there is also Sammy Obeid, Ramy Youssef (no relation) and Paul Elia, - of Iraqi decent whose family are catholic. Chouia captures their frustration of their having to repeatedly explain their ethnicity - Michael Passion frequently tells people "think of me as Kim Kardashian's cousin" - as well as the constant type casting of Middle Eastern Americans in Hollywood, and all are genuinely fearful of what the Trump presidency holds for them. 

The film tackles a very serious subject matter with the right kind of levity reminding us occasionally that in amongst the real fear and abuse Middle Eastern Americans face spurred on by Trump's divisive rhetoric is some sharp insightful comedic observations and hopeful joy .The scene where Elia walks off stage after his skit and overhearing the host jokingly call him a terrorist as the audience laughs, give one pause for thought. Then there is Feraz Ozel's response to why good Muslims don't get together to fight the bad ones which is perhaps the best response to such nonsense. However, in between these discussions there is plenty of comedy to enjoy from Kader's LA based Vox Pop to the segments from each of the comics' skits bringing on plenty of laugh out loud moments, with one thing they all share - an unashamed willingness to also laugh at themselves and their culture. 

Paul Elia
My namesake Ramy Youssef

"Travel Ban" is the epitome of dualistic story telling; funny yet frightening, infuriating yet hopeful. 
The film pulls no punches about showing both the troupe's concerns and frustrations over the increasing attentions, but softens the blow with their ability to laugh at it all, and one walks away at the end with a feeling, that maybe, just maybe laughter will save the day. Travel Ban is  a tale of awe inspiring determination where laughter trumps hate, with the stage as the battlefield and comedy the weapon of choice.

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