Review: ‘Tickling Giants,’ a documentary by Sara Taksler

by Andrew Parker

Historically, humour has always been an important, subversive tool when it comes to standing up for one’s beliefs and holding those in positions of power accountable for their actions. It’s a tool that can win over the hearts and minds of a populace, but one that can turn off just as many people as it embraces. A great case study for the push and pull effect humour has in the our often violent, obstinate, sarcasm driven modern world, Sara Taksler’s documentary Tickling Giants looks at one brave everyman’s attempts to use his funny bone as a tool for change, accountability, and critical thought in one of the world’s most politically tenuous countries.

In 2011, Egyptian cardiologist and surgeon Bassem Youssef decided to make one of his biggest dreams a reality. A sharp wit who looked up to what talk show host and comedian Jon Stewart was doing with The Daily Show in the United States, Youssef came up with the concept of creating a similarly humorous weekly news series for Egyptian audiences living in a culture so politically volatile that one might need to laugh to keep from crying. When the show was launched, long time leader Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign the presidency of his country by a populace who demanded more democratic rule. From there, Mohamed Morsi of the opposing Muslim Brotherhood would become a democratically elected leader. After drawing public ire for trying to implement sweeping policies that would give him more absolute powers more befitting a dictator, Morsi was deposed by the country’s military in a coup led by current president and former armed forces commander-in-chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Violent uprisings, political suppression, and human rights abuses abounded, and the country remained divided in the wake of the Arab Spring, but following Mubarak’s rule, laws governing journalistic freedom of speech were relaxed, allowing Youssef to make create a pop cultural juggernaut in Egypt.

Youssef’s idea started as a modest YouTube series run out of his laundry room, quickly garnering millions of views in only the first few weeks of its existence. Major networks – already struggling to find any sort of voice or identity after the fall of Mubarak and still scared to deviate from hard-right party lines and views – came calling. At the height of his popularity and amid Egypt’s escalating political circus, Youssef’s The Show was pulling in 40% of the country’s recorded viewing public whenever it aired. Wanting to engage with his audience and force them into thinking critically about all ruling parties, Youssef took no prisoners with his biting, if admittedly broad and profanity laced monologues and skits. He made no friends during Morsi’s time in office, with the leader even calling for his arrest at one point after being made fun of for his choice of outlandish hat and poor English speaking skills, but nothing would compare to the fight Youssef and his staff would face when the country shifted back to military rule. When Youssef and his staff are told to stop making fun of authority figures or face certain cancellation, they begin to wonder what’s left to make fun of and if going ahead is worth the risk.

Tickling Giants filmmaker Taksler worked frequently behind the scenes of The Daily Show as a producer, and her familiarity with such a creative environment and a figure like Youssef shows at every turn. The politics might be the different, but the behind-the-scenes environment is quite similar, and Taksler navigates through her fly-on-the-wall approach with expert precision. Although she was around from the inception of Youssef’s series, sticking around with the show’s staff through several seasons, Taksler deserves more credit for her patient ability to keep following her subject through whiplash inducing ups and downs. For every bit of praise showered upon Youssef from inside and outside the country, more danger and instability arises. Every joke – no matter how valid or insightful – makes her subject a bigger target in the eyes of his detractors (some on his own network) and ruling parties.

Youssef, who has a wife and young daughter that he cares deeply for, is a fascinating, complex figure to wrap a film around. With his salt and pepper hair and piercing blue eyes, Youssef is the type of performer a camera loves instantly, and he has the personality, conviction, magnetism, and confidence that make people want to watch his show even if they hate it. When the cameras are off, however, he’s just as scared, insecure, and frustrated as the rest of his country. Viewers, some of whom call for his immediate cancellation, condemnation, or death, read into his bits and skits differently, and while every monologue comes from his heart, no television talk show could act as a perfect encapsulation of the person anchoring it. That’s the double edged sword of comedy, especially in a climate as politically and religiously frenzied as Egypt. He’s not doing much of anything different than Stewart (who pops up a few times here), Trevor Noah, or John Oliver, all of whom face similar criticisms and threats of censorship, but none of whom have to live under the fears of death or imprisonment that Youssef and his staff consistently face.

The personal aspect of Tickling Giants fades away early on, which is disappointing considering the richness of Youssef as a human being, but once the host starts becoming the news instead of reporting on it, Taksler seeks to outline how the show can take on a bigger life than the figurehead who created it. The viewer only gets to know a basic amount about Youssef, partially out of obvious safety concerns, but also because Tickling Giants is about what Taksler’s subject is saying and how he’s conveying his messages and ideas instead of looking at what makes him tick. The answer to those questions are obvious to anyone who looks at the world around Youssef without the host having to even say anything on the subject. This macro approach does lead to a final product that’s a tad overlong (clocking in at just under two hours), meandering, and sometimes repetitive, but much like The Show’s broad aiming host, Taksler’s film has its heart and mind standing firmly at the forefront. Tickling Giants is a comprehensive history of a show that was ahead of its time for its culture, and by the time the film’s emotionally gutting finale hits like a ton of bricks to the chest, viewers will understand full and well the significance of it all.

Tickling Giants opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, July 7, 2017.

Check out the trailer for Tickling Giants:

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