Bassem Youssef was a heart surgeon in Egypt and fan of comedy, namely Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” when he took to Youtube. He gained tens of millions of like-minded viewers in need of an outlet.
If America could laugh at their leaders, then why couldn’t Egypt? Spurred on by a wave of political unrest, Youseff found himself hosting a national television program simply titled “The Show.” A sound stage, the lights, the billboards. With his tanned skin and strikingly blue eyes, Youseff took to entertainment like it was second nature. Soon he became known as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart.”
Meanwhile in New York, “The Daily Show” senior producer and Jewish filmmaker Sara Taksler decided to document Youssef’s journey. What began as a curiosity evolved into something much more consequential.
The resulting film, “Tickling Giants,” is screening for one night only on Tuesday, March 21, at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, including a recorded interview with “Full Frontal” host and “Daily Show” alum Samantha Bee.
What: “Tickling Giants” screening
Where: Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive, Midtown
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 21
Tickets: $15; bit.ly/2mCnuhk
“Tickling Giants” is just beginning its release, but Taksler has already received encouraging reactions: “We had one school where a Hillel and a Muslim student association came together to host (the film) and have a dialogue,” Taksler said. “That was the best outcome I could hope for. It’s been important to me throughout the whole process of making the movie to shed light on the fact that the people in the movie who you see — these kind, funny, ‘normal’ people — are the people we talk about when we talk about Muslims and the Middle East.”
Most Americans haven’t seen Egyptians as anything other than a remnant of the pyramids, radicals or victims. According to our media, Egyptians aren’t liberal or young or modern or irreverent. Yet “Tickling Giants” shows us the writer’s room of “The Show” us a bold contrast. We see 20-somethings with loose hair and facial piercings, graphic tees and a birthday cake decorated with Batman’s logo. We see joking in the face of threats and violence. Taksler’s film challenges the mainstream idea of what a Muslim is or isn’t.
“I was in the same position,” she said in reference to the majority of Westerners. “I didn’t know anything about Egypt before I started the movie. I felt like ‘OK, I’m very far from home. I don’t know anyone here, but I feel comfortable, and I’m hanging out with funny, cool, nice people who remind me of the people I work with.’ We’re very much the same.”
“Tickling Giants” makes the Arab Spring personal in the way that only a skilled documentary can. The film is swept up in the country’s revolution: through the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak, followed by a democratic election, before it erupted into a military coup. We watch the crumbling of free speech via the rise and fall of the nation’s beloved satire television show.
Taksler doesn’t need to dress up the emotional highs and lows of the story. It’s unavoidably moving when Youssef meets Stewart in New York for the first time. It’s similarly easy to feel Youssef’s pain in the dramatic moment when “The Show” breaks to address a frightened live audience and inform them it is no longer permitted to air.
Taksler flew between New York and Egypt with an eye out for when things began to feel dangerous. “I lived in NY throughout the filming and I had a local crew that filmed whenever I wasn’t there. There were a few times when I was here, but Bassem felt like things were getting tense or anybody was having a meeting with the network, so we made sure to have a crew on those days.”
Egypt has jailed more than two dozen journalists and media personnel since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or “Sisi” was elected as president in 2014. The Committee to Protect Journalists has listed Egypt as the world’s second-worst jailer of journalists behind China. Taksler struggled to depict what was happening to the people who had become her friends.
“That was a big debate in the edit. I wanted there to be hope, but at the same time, it is bleak,” Taksler said. “Particularly some of the Egyptians on our crew who didn’t want the hope to be dishonest, because you should be concerned when you finish viewing this, because a lot work still needs to be done. For me, the goal of the movie is to get people to think about ‘tickling giants’ – and what I mean when I say that is finding creative, nonviolent ways to stop the abuse of power.”
When asked about films that influenced her, Taksler named the documentary that inspired her career, 1993’s “The War Room,” about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. “It’s interesting to see the inner workings of something that is sort of plastered everywhere all the time, but you don’t really get to know the people who are making campaigns happen. And I really think that they did a good job in making that film.”
Taksler didn’t expect that her own film about media conditions in another country would resonate so soon at home. An audience member approached her at a recent screening and said that “Tickling Giants” is a cautionary tale for America under President Donald Trump.
“I never imagined that my own country would so quickly become so divided,” Taksler said. “The biggest surprise for me, or what I didn’t see coming, is that tons of conservatives and libertarians really loved the movie. I think it’s because Bassem is fighting for free speech, and it’s important for people on all sides of the political spectrum.”