There’s no better way to undermine a dictatorship than good ol’ fashioned satire.
Egypt has had one hell of a journey the last few years. From the onset of the Arab Spring to the questionable ascension of military leader Abd El-Fattah El-Sisi to the presidency, Egypt and its people have been dealing with tumultuous event after tumultuous event. With daily armed protests in the streets and an increasingly religious and militarized power coming in, many of the revolutionaries of the 2011 coup began recognizing that they were part of an endless cycle of deceit and oppression. It was a disheartening moment for many young Egyptians who had hoped that the removal of power thirsty dictator Hosni Mubarak would lead to a more democratized nation. Instead, military rule and Islamist rhetoric began seeping into civilian life, forcing everyone to ask, “just what in the hell happened guys?”
A nation that once stood as a beacon of economic prosperity and social stability in both the Middle East and Africa has slowly begun descending into madness. Protestors are still being oppressed and jailed. Journalists are still being silenced. Political opponents are still being stifled. So it comes as no surprise that a satirical show that draws nearly 30 million viewers would stir the pot a little too.
“Tickling Giants” tells the story of political satirist Bassem Youssef, whose program “Al Bernameg” (which translates to “The Show”) became a bastion of laughs in a time when there were few to be had. It was much like “The Daily Show” albeit with a much more significant weight to it. After all, Jon Stewart never had to worry about being whisked away in an unmarked van. Having gone through multiple lawsuits, threats, and a tense interrogation and arrest, Youssef’s journey as the voice of humorous wit is a naturally interesting subject for a documentary, a quality that “The Daily Show” senior producer and “Tickling Giants” director Sara Taksler takes full advantage of in her her adept sophomore attempt.
With an arresting narrative and a skillful use of editing, Taksler’s “Tickling Giants” is an exercise in showcasing hypocrisy, giving viewers a glimpse into the world of satire in a sociopolitical spectrum that will not allow it. Without over complicating a complicated situation, Taksler’s gripping documentary provides an insight that lets viewers understand the intricacies of Egypt’s fraught political system. The film is structured in a similar vein to a “Daily Show” episode: bring in the audience with a joke or two and then sit them down for an honest political discussion. It’s an especially powerful technique, one that ensures that there is a constant sense of levity to the rather pallid news while never detracting from the severity and seriousness of the situation. In a world that is becoming increasingly silenced, “Tickling Giants” is a necessary film, demonstrating a frustratingly long-winded battle to express one’s thoughts.
So what else is there to do but to laugh at the absurdity of it all? That was the answer that the former heart surgeon came to after the increasingly disturbing aftermath of the revolution. And seeing as the Egyptian media was not willing to address any of the misgivings that the public might have been having, Youssef decided to step in himself. Armed with a hundred dollars, a laundry room and a few helpful friends, Youssef launched what would be his calling card of humanity. Instead of saving lives holding a knife, the surgeon-cum-comedian did so by launching a humor-fueled dialogue with the Egyptian people. Finally, someone was addressing the circus that was occurring in their country.
But not everyone was so keen on the satirist’s take on the news. After multiple jabs at the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, Youssef found himself being threatened, harassed and publicly denounced as a heretic and traitor. Soon, death threats began pouring in from Morsi-supporters. Things were becoming a bit too terrifying, leading to the cancellation of the much beloved program and Youssef eventually undergoing a self-imposed exile. It was a delicate time, one that signaled an end to politically savvy comedy in the North African nation. Thankfully films like “Tickling Giant” shine a light on a much needed discussion about the abuse of power, silencing of opposition, and freedom of speech.
“Tickling Giants” hits VOD, Blu-Ray and DVD on June 13.
We screened the film at NeueHouse NY. The screening was followed by Q & A with Bassem Youssef and Sara Taksler.