Tickling Giants is the real-life story of Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian cardiologist who quit medicine to become a host of the satirical Al Bernameg (The Show). Starting as a spot on YouTube, he and his team quickly worked their way to a huge following and a TV show with his brand of satire on the political events of his country during the turbulent Arab Spring risings after the downfall of dictator Mubarak.
Written, directed and produced by Sara Taksler, I was first introduced to Bassem Youssef via The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (on which Taksler is a producer) and although I know his work and what he was achieving in Egypt, I don’t think I’d fully appreciated the reality of the situation that he and his team ended up involved in.
Filmed over a few years, Taksler’s documentary certainly celebrates the parody side of Bassem’s ventures on Egypt television, his own offspring of The Daily Show, but it also shows the enormity of the power that military regimes hold. In truth, it’s difficult to initially comprehend in our society because while people complain of late trains, bad Wi-Fi and delayed flight connections, the government in Egypt have imprisoned individuals for saying something they don’t like or doesn’t think you should be saying. This is obviously something I’m aware of it and it’s easy for us to laugh it off from a distance, but how does it feel when you’re embedded deep inside?
Bassem quintessentially fights abuses of power with words and comedy, he is a natural comedy talent, and in Tickling Giants we witness his rise to fame on Al Bernameg. It’s a vibrant success and while the Egyptians lap up their new-found freedom, things start to change once General Sisi comes to power. Sisi is a decorated military General who’s seen as a hero and although has understandably protected the country and done his job, once he’s elected things start to seemingly trackback to how they were before. Journalists are arrested and people are censored for their opinions.
These problems really hit home when a producer’s Father is arrested, as it’s allegedly the only way they can get to Bassem, and it sets off a chain of thought as they start to question whether they’re being watched and if suppression is returning. It’s clear that fear is rising within the TV studio setup and you can see why they want to fight for their show but there’s also a genuine worry for their well-being and then after a series of events and broadcasts, the studio cancels his show. Although they claim they’re (in essence) doing it to calm people down in unsettled times, it’s clear they feel he’s a catalyst and Bassem is causing the unrest.
For me, this is really insightful for any government or corporation trying to silence something they’re scared of because on the flipside it makes it a bigger concern than it possibly is. It gives it more traction, it makes an issue, it becomes something that’s noticeable and this in return is a spur for a bigger movement. By trying to silence him, it gives all the people a bigger voice and that’s only caused by censorship, not by Bassem and his team.
Although saddening in places, Tickling Giants is also a funny and remarkable documentary because Bassem and the Al Bernameg team really took the moments of the revolution, created something positive and gave the people something to think about. It also makes it clear that although the country has gone back under military rule, the seeds of revolution have been planted and so optimistically when younger generations look to what happened in those brief years of free political speech, they’ll see it was possible to change and maybe they can achieve it again.
Review by Dan Bullock, October 2016.
4/5 – Tickling Giants is screening at the London Film Festival on October 12th and 15th 2016.