Film Review: Tickling Giants
“If your regime isn’t strong enough to take a joke, then you don’t actually have a regime.”
– Jon Stewart
In 2012, Sara Taksler, one of the senior producers for The Daily Show met an interesting guest on Jon Stewart’s show. He was Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian cardiac surgeon who had decided to quit his job at the hospital and become a political satirist on TV. Taksler was very intrigued to find a heart surgeon doing political satire. She imagined what it would be like if Jon Stewart decided to be a heart surgeon. Taksler also met the team behind Youssef’s show, The Show, and realized that half of the team that helped Youssef to make his programs were women. The idea of Tickling Giants started to form. Taksler talked to Youssef about a proposal, making a documentary about Youssef and going behind the scenes of his show. Youssef agreed.
At first, the documentary was supposed to be a nine-month project following the daily life of Youssef and his team while producing The Show. But what happened in Egypt because of the Arab Spring and its political atmosphere extended the project for four years.
The movie begins with a statement read by Youssef asking the audience to leave the theater if they are dictators or if they support them. Then, step by step, we realize how the idea of The Show formed, how it began, and how it finally ended.
It all began in the midst of the Arab Spring. Youssef was working as a surgeon in a hospital in Cairo when one of his friends called and offered him the opportunity to make a political satire for the online audience. The team started to record the show in Youssef’s laundry room. They put the film on YouTube expecting about 10,000 viewers, but the result was surprising. The film attracted 35,000 visitors on the day the video was uploaded, and five million visitors in just two months.
One of the major TV networks offered him a contract to create a TV show similar to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show; a program that Youssef called Al-Bernameg meaning The Show.
In The Show, Youssef criticized politicians and made fun of them, no matter who they were and which position they were in at the time. With each episode his audience became bigger, and the show attracted about 35 million viewers every week, in a country with a total population of 90 million.
Al-Bernameg became the most popular TV program in the Arab world and made Youssef the most popular media personality in Egypt for three years in a row. He was also one of “The 100 Most Influential People” in 2013, according to Time magazine. But, that wasn’t the entire story.
In the Middle East, politicians — no matter who they are — are not used to being criticized. Hosni Mubarak, a so-called elected president who ran Egypt for more than 30 years, Mohamed Morsi, who had been elected in a democratic election but forgot many of his promises after taking office, and even Abdel Fattah El Sisi, an army general who “saved” the country from Morsi to be a new dictator — all disliked criticism.
Pressures on The Show and Youssef increased. He was arrested for what the government called “insulting Islam and President Morsi.” After Morsi was removed from power in a coup d’ état, Youssef and his crew still received threats from the authorities and their supporters. Finally, a TV network that had canceled his show filed a lawsuit against him. The court ordered him to pay compensation of $100 million Egyptian pounds ($5.5 million USD) which, according to Youssef, was the largest fine in Egypt’s history. Eventually, Youssef was forced to end his program and leave the country.
You might ask why he had to leave his country, while “tyrants” and “thieves” were still there? In his book “Revolution by Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring” Youssef writes,“I didn’t steal, didn’t abuse my powers, and certainly didn’t hurt anyone. All I did was tell jokes.” Youssef asserts that, dictators may like satire but only if it is not about them “because comedy takes away their fake respect,” and because “all of these dictators basically draw their legitimacy and their status from people fearing them.”
The dramatic and suspenseful story of Tickling Giants and Youssef’s amazing character, have made the documentary similar to a movie thriller. We know there is no scripted dialogue for documentaries. Nevertheless, all of us watching the film are waiting for the moment when thanks to the writer, a super-hero emerges and helps our satirist overcome all obstacles.
Some of us are even waiting for a moment in the film when Youssef rises as a savior and stands in front of all corrupt authorities. But, it never happens because we are watching exactly what has happened in the real world, and Youssef is not a superhero in a Hollywood movie. He is an ordinary man who never wanted to be a hero. He is a political satirist who just wanted to make the people of his country happy and aware of corruption within their government. He is a husband and a father who wants his family to be safe.
Tickling Giants, Starring Bassem Youssef, Directed by Sara Taksler, Rated R. Running time: 111 minutes.
You can find free screenings of Tickling Giants at the following locations:
- University of Southern California, Tue, April 25, 2017. 6:30 – 9:00 PM
- Pomona College, Wed, April 26, 2017. 4:15 – 6:45 PM
- Los Angeles City College, Mon, May 15, 2017. 5:00 – 8:00 PM
- University of California, Santa Barbara, Wed, May 31, 2017. 6:00 – 9:00 PM