(USA, 111 min.)
Written and directed by SaraTaksler
The upside to the political circus to the south is that it makes for great television. Saturday Night Live is the funniest it’s been in a long time thanks to Alec Baldwin’s puckered take on the President and Kate McKinnon’s deadpan parody of his kooky spin-doctor. Late night talk shows are on fire and their satire is essential. These shows ask valuable questions, but they also use humour to challenge the authority of our leaders, satirise claims of ‘fake news’, and make audiences more aware of the madness around them.
All this refreshing humour, however, is a luxury. Here in the West, comics and talk show hosts can act as independent, alternative, and adversarial journalists even if the sitting President has skin thinner than an onion. The punchline isn’t as well received in other corners of the world as it is here, which doesn’t say much for the sense of humour shared by many world leaders.
Take, for example, the plight of Bassem Youssef. As the documentary Tickling Giants explains, Youssef is a fearless funnyman and truth teller. This film by Sara Taksler chronicles Youssef’s journey from wisecracking surgeon to YouTuber, late night celebrity and political pariah. His story is a remarkable rise and reluctant fall that encourages everyone around the globe to take the webcam before them and use it as a tool for public good.
Youssef has the reputation for being Egypt’s Jon Stewart thanks to the success of his popular and now-defunct satirical comedy show The Show (Albernamag), which aired from 2011-2013. The comedian/commentator also deserves comparison as Egypt’s Cenk Uygur since his career in media has a similar origin story and arc. (Tickling Giants explains how The Show began in Youssef’s laundry room and connected with Egyptians thanks to its alternative voice.) Youssef takes more obvious inspiration from Stewart, though, since much of Tickling Giants details a similar style of humour as well as genuine admiration for the comic that runs as a narrative thread.
Taksler gives an extensive backgrounder on Youssef’s evolution as a comedian and political commentator as she charts the development of his voice in tandem with the rise of the Arab Spring movement and the ensuing political revolutions in Egypt. Youssef decides to take his mightiest weapon—his sense of humour—and point it straight at the office of then-President Hosni Murabek, whose dictatorial reign came to an end when the people of Egypt rallied for change and ousted him from office. Taksler’s doc shows how something in the air—a ticklish breeze, perhaps—inspired winds of change on the Egyptian airwaves. Tickling Giants draws frequent parallels between The Show and The Daily Show, but there’s a truly revolutionary spirit to the comedy Youssef delivers. The masses of fellow Egyptians who congregate in cafés and hookah bars to watch it, too, illustrate the need for the people to have a voice on their own airwaves.
Stewart makes several appearances in Tickling Giants and the doc portrays the American funnyman and his Egyptian contemporary as brothers united in a common struggle. Youssef’s admiration for Stewart is tangible, particularly in his first appearance as a guest on The Daily Show, and his starstruck gaze humanises him as a subject. Upon Stewart’s second appearance in Tickling Giants, the balance of power has shifted in terms of which star draws the bigger audience. Unlike the giants Youssef satirises on the airwaves, however, his power and influence never go to his head. The axis of power turns outside the studio as Egypt backslides into conservatism while Youssef readies for another season and a bigger fight.
Similarly, Tickling Giants explores the lives of the behind the scenes crew that join Youssef for the challenge. The doc shows the passion that runs throughout the crewmembers, some of whom see their families put at serious risk due to the success of The Show, as they insist that the pen is mightier than the sword. Their perseverance is admirable and Taksler honours the crew fittingly through a series of animated interludes that depict Youssef and The Show in a cartoonish fight against the machine.
The unwieldy and sensitive history of the relationship between religion and politics in Egypt plays an equally vital role in Youssef’s humour, as well as the many controversies it inspires. When so many of the barriers that the Arab Spring movement seeks to break take hold in religion, comedians like Youssef find themselves tickling at deeply entrenched systems of belief. Tickling Giants admittedly packs a lot of information, and is fairly exhausting at nearly two hours, but the effort to enlighten the viewer is evident thanks to the details that Taksler provides. The info dump is necessary given the complicated political climate that serves as the context of Youssef’s entertainment.
Ticking Giants packs as much humour as it does history, though, so Taksler balances enlightenment and entertainment with a hand that should do the late night comedy crowd proud. The director takes a note from her subject and knows realises that the best way to connect to an audience is through humanity and humour. Laughter is an empowering weapon.
Tickling Giants screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Saturday, April 1 at 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox. The screening features a Q&A with director Sara Taksler, VICE News Reporter Ben Makuch and Human Rights Watch’s Farida Deif.