Picking up about a year after the Tahrir Square protests led to President Hosni Mubarak stepping down from office, Sara Taksler’s sprightly, surprisingly vital documentary Tickling Giants serves as an often sobering chronicle of post-Arab Spring Egypt, where, in a few short years, the country emerged from military rule into a fitful democracy and then crumbled back under the power of a new military dictator. Except that’s not what Tickling Giants is about, really. First and foremost, it’s about a comedian.
After Mubarak, one of the newfound liberties to which Egyptians awoke was freedom of expression. For Dr. Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon, that meant hosting a satirical news program on YouTube, shot in his laundry room, in which he mocked and poked at whatever the new government was bungling that week in the style of one of his idols, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. In short order, Youssef became a massive success and was soon offered his own television show. Staffed completely by amateurs (by virtue of the fact that no one in Egypt had any experience making a show like this), Al-Bernameg took off, quickly earning Youssef a nickname he gladly accepts, “the Egyptian Jon Stewart.” As the country changed, though, many became offended by what they perceived as Youssef’s lack of respect, especially when adored strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power. Egypt, it turns out, values its military above all and, though many remained on Al-Bernameg’s side (“I don’t want to create another pharaoh,” says one woman of the nation’s blind embrace of Sisi), Youssef soon found himself trying to tell jokes on television while living in far more danger and fear than Stewart could ever have imagined. Taksler documents Youssef, his family and his coworkers as they face the rising threats, from both the citizens who favor Sisi as well as, increasingly, from Sisi’s government itself with fly-on-the-wall intensity (as well as the obligatory animated segments; even these are above par, though).
Youssef is funnier than the average person but not the average comedian (though I did laugh at his breaking update from the scene of a protest, “The Kentucky Fried Chicken is closed”). Then again, Stewart himself has never exactly been an all-time great for pure jokes. But that’s not really the most important part of the role they play. Compared to something like the consistently funny and occasionally stinging The Onion, there’s an inherent gentleness to the satire of both The Daily Show and Al-Bernameg. Yet, especially in the latter case, these soft nudges actually act as an effective foil to the truly heinous and inhumane actions and events they seek to expose.
Taksler may have set out to make a documentary solely about Youssef but, to her credit, she clearly came to realize that the story has more impact when it encompasses the breadth of his life, including all of the other people in it, from his wife and daughter to his tirelessly devoted and talented staff. A section following Youssef as he comes to New York City to appear on The Daily Show stalls out in self-indulgence.
Quickly, though, things get back on track. As Al-Bernameg grows, stumbles and corrects itself, its creative team and the show itself come to represent Egypt as a whole since the revolution. It’s a new, exciting and often terrifying endeavor that will improve the more people are able to work together. It may fail at times. In fact, it may appear to be completely done for. That’s no reason not to keep doing it.
Here in the States, we are also learning to adapt to a new reality. It may be upsettingly relatable to hear Mubarak insist that protestors are paid operatives. Later, we witness Sisi declare that the measures he takes are necessary because the country is in danger, a nauseating echo of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant fearmongering that President Trump uses to assert his righteousness. Building walls and banning those who are different may comfort some with promises of stability but, as Youssef points out, “Stability should not be the goal.” We can’t allow ourselves to feel at peace until we feel truly free. Luckily, as Tickling Giants illustrates, we have an unlikely weapon in the form of humor. The film’s tagline warns authority figures, “When you go after a joke, the joke’s on you.” So, fuck ‘em if they can’t take it. In fact, fuck ‘em even more.