INTERVIEW | Comedian Ahmed Ahmed Proves That Arabs and Muslims Laugh “Just Like Us”

INTERVIEW | Comedian Ahmed Ahmed Proves That Arabs and Muslims Laugh "Just Like Us"

International comedian Ahmed Ahmed’s directorial debut “Just Like Us,” follows comics in the Middle East (Ahmed included) who tour to show that comedy is still very much alive in the Arab world. Ahmed chatted with indieWIRE about what made him to step behind the camera. The film opened in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. on June 10th. Click here to see when it’s coming to a theater near you.

The Deal: This documentary features Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed, in his directorial debut, along with a host of critically acclaimed international stand-up comedians. Presented by Cross Cultural Entertainment and Cross Cultural Productions, “Just Like Us” exemplifies their goal of reintroducing socially relevant issues to the world in an effort to build cultural bridges in this age of greater tolerance, understanding and acceptance. The film documents four countries in the Middle East, showcasing the cultures of Dubai, Lebanon, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Egypt with sold out crowds totaling over 20,000 people. [Synopsis courtesy of Cross Cultural Entertainment]

Responses courtesy of “Just Like Us” director Ahmed Ahmed.

Finding his own voice…

I always envisioned myself as a filmmaker, but not until later in my years. I started out as an actor and made a living on and off playing terrorists and cab drivers in Hollywood productions. After seven years off doing that I became very artistically frustrated and wanted to play more mainstream roles. My agent told me if I changed my name to “Rick” I’d have a better chance at these so-called mainstream roles. I decided to quit and find my voice. But what was my voice…? Six months went by and I was not sure what I was supposed to do. Eventually I ran out of money and went back to waiting tables. It was while I was working there that I found out how to be a comedian. Waiters and comics have a lot in common because we have to entertain the guests at the end of the day and you either receive a good tip or a good laugh…sometimes both. One night, an old woman came in and told me I should be a comedian. I said, “You think you know funny?” And she replied, “Of course I do, look at all of my sons!” Her sons laughed and clapped along.

Once I took her advice my journey began and here I am 15 years later still telling stories…but now on film. I actually ended up directing “Just Like Us” by accident. I just hired two camera guys and said, “Shoot EVERYTHING!” We gave me the director title while we were editing.

The reasons for making “Just Like Us”…

A few things inspired me to make the film. The first thing was being a comedian on Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Tour in 2005. That experience was an inside peak into what it’s like to produce live shows, film them and then edit the footage. The second thing was the fact I was performing in the middle east a lot and my American friends could not believe I was doing shows for Arabs in Arab countries. They would ask me stuff like, “You do your act in Arabic? And they get…?” And then my American comedian friends who came on their first tour there were shocked at the magnitude of appreciation Arabs and Muslims showed towards our comedy shows. So, this film is a 72-minute answer to a lot of questions people have about Dubai, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Lastly, I pay honor and respect to Mitzi Shore (owner of the World famous Comedy Store in Hollywood, Ca.). It was her vision to put Middle Eastern Comedians on her stage about a year before 9-11 and called us the Arabian Knights and then eventually The Axis Of Evil Comedy Tour, based on the phrase President Bush had coined. She had an epiphany that humor was going to be needed in that part of the world. She was right. Here I am 10 years later bringing American comedians to parts of the world were revolutions happen.

Leaving it to the audience…

It was very challenging to get the film made and distributed. We shot the film on a low budget with a limited crew and had 200 hours of footage at the end of the day. We spent 6 months editing and editing and editing and finally came up with a film that we were ready to show the public. We thought it would be a good idea to bulletproof the movie, so we test screened in focus groups several times and basically allowed the audience to edit the film. We handed out comment sheets at the end with various questions about the movie. What people liked, what they didn’t like and so on. We even asked who their favorite character was and 98% said my dad. Now he thinks he should get an agent.

We submitted to over 20 film festivals and were never selected until our film got in the right hands at The Tribeca Film Festival and premiered there in April 2010. It was an interesting honor being selected by Tribeca because that’s where 9-11 happened 10 years ago and here’s a film community that’s extending an olive branch to filmmakers who are making projects that touch on this particular subject matter. From there, we didn’t have to submit to film festivals any longer because now festivals were coming to us. Tribeca made us cool, I suppose. Several distributors approached us and we ended up finding a home at LionsGate Films though MIGHT Entertainment. It was a long process and took about a year to negotiate but worth it in the end. Our company Cross Cultural Entertainment will release the film nationwide in selected theaters Landmark Theaters starting June 10th, 2011. We hope it will be a great feel good movie to go see this summer and tell your friends about.

A comedy with a purpose…

By making this film, I wanted to show that besides cultural and religious differences, Arabs and Muslims laugh just like us. Also, that as a filmmaker anything is possible these days with so much technology and information out there. Movies are being made on high def home movie cameras. We took a topic that so many people are afraid of because they are uneducated or misunderstood and tackled the geopolitics of each country we visited. Our film is entertaining but we also went for the message of understanding, tolerance and inclusion. There is definitely an educational element factored into our film. We did suffer a few setbacks and had some fun behind-the-scene moments, but but you’ll have to wait for the bonus DVD “Smile on Arabia” to come out in order to see all that.

A sequel in the works…

We shot a sequel to our documentary last November titled “Just Like Us Too.” In this film we travel to Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Syria and Palestine. Several fans in those counties would come up to me and say, “I noticed you only have Dubai, Egypt, Saudi ad Lebanon in your film. What about us…? We laugh just like them too!” Look out for in early 2012.

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