Tickling Giants


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Tickling Giants
"The humour itself is as light as a feather – a symbol used by Andeel in his animation to good effect – but the reaction from the regime(s) is about as subtle as a brick" | Photo: EgyTheaters

Bassem Youssef may not be well-known to many outside his home country of Egypt, but there the heart-surgeon-turned-comic is a household name. His satire show The Show commanded more than 30 million viewers when it was at its height and he was nicknamed “the Egyptian Jon Stewart” after The Daily Show presenter whose work he emulated – although his viewing figures far outstripped Stewart’s still-impressive two million per episode.

Director Sara Taksler encountered Youssef as a producer of The Daily Show when the comic was a guest and on what she describes as an “impulse” decided to make a film about him. That was in 2012, which was, in a way, the perfect point at which to enter Youssef’s story. A twinkly, dapper and prematurely greying 30-something, he initially physically fixed people’s hearts by day and then had them in stitches in his spare-time. He was one of many doctors who headed to Tahrir Square during the 2011 protests, which saw long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak finally turfed from office. “It was the equivalent of six US presidents,” Youssef deadpans, “Or, as we call it in Egypt, his first term.” As a result, there was a relaxation in towards freedom of speech and Youssef was inspired to make his first series of YouTube videos, made with his partner in humour Tarek ElKazzazz.

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Taksler charts the progress of Youssef’s career, as he gathered a team together, including talented cartoonist Andeel, whose clever animations break up this film, and began to hit the big time after being picked up by a network. The election of The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi proved to be a rich seam of comedy but it wasn’t long before the regime lost its sense of humour, an unfortunate turn of events which proved to be just a taste of the trouble to come.

Youssef is a tremendously likeable presence, whether Taksler is following him through his day at the office or at home, horsing around with his young daughter. Although the film occasionally strays close to making him almost super-heroic, he has a good line in self-deprecation that just about keeps things in check. Although the film never takes itself too seriously, this means that when more serious points are made, especially with regard to how you can continue to create satire when people are losing their lives on a daily basis, they strike home harder.

Although the runtime is pushing it a bit at almost two hours, it does means she is able to spend time with members of his team, in particular, Miral, who talks about the changes for women that result from the regime switch. The length also enables us to see the drip-effect of pressure on Youssef and his colleagues. Although he remains spontaneously funny and unbowed, he looks markedly more tired and stressed as the film continues and as his team find their families are coming under pressure because of their work.

The humour itself is as light as a feather – a symbol used by Andeel in his animation to good effect – but the reaction from the regime(s) is about as subtle as a brick. In the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president – and his open attacks on what he terms “fake media” - the film also acquires an added resonance. Journalists and satirists may not be threatened with incarceration in the US but Trump is whipping up similar sentiments to those courted by Sisi, in particular, so that this documentary outlines a more global concern about the importance of freedom of speech.

Reviewed on: 21 Feb 2017
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Charting Bassem Youssef’s rise as Egypt’s foremost on-screen satirist.
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Director: Sara Taksler

Writer: Sara Taksler

Starring: Bassem Youssef, Jon Stewart

Year: 2016

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: US

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