What do you do when your government becomes a military dictatorship and forbids freedom of speech that is critical of the regime? You can fight back with the one non-violent weapon most bullies fear the most – satire. Heart surgeon turned comedian Bassem Youssef knows this is true because he became an overnight sensation in Egypt after launching his own YouTube web series (filmed in his laundry room) that poked fun at his government.
From these humble beginnings to the network launch of his satiric news show Al Bernameg in 2012, Youssef quickly earned a following of 30 million viewers per episode and was soon dubbed “The Egyptian Jon Stewart.” All of this and more is chronicled in the highly compelling documentary Tickling Giants, directed by Sara Taksler and currently in selected screenings across the U.S.
*This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared on ArtsATL.com
Taksler, a senior producer at The Daily Show, first met Youssef in June 2012 when he appeared as a guest on Jon Stewart’s program. Youssef’s TV series was not yet on the air but he was already a cult figure among Middle Eastern audiences since the wake of Arab Spring 2011.
At the time, Taksler had no plans to make another film (She had previously co-directed Twisted: A Balloonamentary, with Naomi Greenfield in 2007) but after meeting Youssef she realized that there were much higher stakes involved in his use of satire. “I love taking a serious issue and finding a cathartic way to process it through humor,” she says. “Bassem was doing just that, but while under the microscope of a country where free speech was not yet settled.” After securing the comedian’s permission to make a documentary about him, Taksler had to come up with the funding. In a wonderful but unexpected turn of events, Frederic Rose, the CEO of Technicolor, found out about the director’s Indiegogo campaign and became a major sponsor. But Taksler still had some challenges to face such as shooting in Egypt where a female director from America would be a conspicuous presence and possibly subject to harrassment. She also didn’t speak Arabic or know anyone in Egypt except Youssef and a few of his staff members.
Everything worked out in the end despite some tense situations during production (which are documented in the movie), and the final result is not only an affectionate portrait of Youssef but also a sobering look at the repressive political climate in Egypt. The film’s loose, freewheeling style employs a chronological structure that proceeds from the waning days of Arab Spring to the cancellation of Al Bernameg in 2014 with Youssef and his wife and daughter eventually being driven into exile by the government of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egyptian head of state and the Supreme Commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces.
Along the way viewers are treated to some of Youssef’s most famous skits, which often involve oversized props, ridiculous costumes, absurd dance numbers and self-congratulatory recreations of former President Mohammed Morsi and current dictator Al-Sisi making speeches or receiving special awards. Jon Stewart is also featured prominently in the film and even journeyed to Cairo to appear on Youssef’s show. One of my favorite recurring jokes involves the official tally of the national vote for president in which the winner receives 97 per cent with hummus winning three per cent. You know an election is rigged when one of the most popular dishes in the Middle East loses to a dictator.
While much of Tickling Giants is devoted to Youssef’s lighthearted spoofing, more serious concerns emerge as the comedian’s popularity makes him a target of those in power. Like Russia, the media in Egypt is government controlled and we begin to see how a non-stop barrage of state propaganda subdues and influences the viewership. After Al-Sisi comes to power, public opinion begins to turn against Youssef as the majority of Egyptians embrace their new leader for bringing “stability” to their nation.
Despite the eventual cancellation of Al Bernameg and having to flee with his family to safety in the United States, Youssef remains surprisingly optimistic. “We are living now in a much faster era. In the Middle East, we have a huge younger generation that is more connected. Oppressive governments can’t control the internet like they could with television networks and newspapers. They can’t rule people with the same methods that were employed on their parents in 1950s and’60s…I am optimistic. I don’t think the revolution is dead. It’s just sleeping for now.”
Considering the current state of the union under President Trump, Tickling Giants couldn’t be a more timely cautionary tale about something most of us take for granted – democracy. The idea that what happened in Egypt can’t happen here might not be as farfetched as you think.
Bassem Youssef is currently on tour in the U.S. in support of his new book, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring. For more information about Tickling Giants, visit the official website http://ticklinggiants.com/.
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