“Are you brave enough to tell a joke?”
Tickling Giants asks the question and then answers that Bassem Youssef is.
In 2011 the Egyptian doctor walked away from a 19 year career as a cardiothoracic surgeon to do satirical political comedy.
Directed by Sara Taksler, the crowd-funded documentary follows Youssef from his online political beginnings to an arc of success / cancellation on Egyptian television and ultimately emigration to the U.S. for the safety of his family.
Youssef spent many years of concentrated effort to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, even longer to learn heart and lung transplants and then more effort to be licensed in multiple countries. He then decided it was more important to be a voice of humorous information and dissent calling the Egyptian government to task during the revolution.
He had provided medical care to the protestors in Tahrir square during the Arab Spring uprising. Inspired by what he’d seen there and outraged at misleading media reports about the Egyptian revolution, he took to YouTube to produce short clips of political satire. There was a big audience for it. In the wake of the enthusiasm for his online “B+” show he was offered a spot on Egyptian television that became the wildly popular Al Bernameg (literally ”The Show”).
It was very similar to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and he was even referred to as The Jon Stewart of Egypt. He was a guest several times on The Daily Show and Jon Stewart appeared on Al Bernameg as well. Let’s say that again: New York Jew and well known personality Jon Stewart went to a Muslim country and appeared on a show aimed at satirizing the government. These guys are fearless, as was Taksler herself going to Egypt to make the documentary.
“The hopeful courage of those who occupied Tahrir square is shown at ground level. Egyptians died in the Arab Spring.”
The revolution saw the end of the Mubarak regime and put Egypt on the rocky road it’s taken ever since through an elected president (Mohamed Morsi) who fell out of favor for his alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood followed by a military coup that produced the current (elected?) ex-military leader Abdel el-Sisi. Throughout this period Youssef produced comedy that critically mocked the government. Audiences in the U.S. are familiar with comedians making fun of politicians but it was uncommon in Egypt. He found a dedicated audience as well as many who were absolutely opposed.
The opposition were supporters either of Morsi or Sisi or just those who thought it was improper to lampoon the government. There were demonstrations outside the show’s Radio Theater studio offices with people calling for the execution of Youssef.
The film is a rare look at Egypt during a time of dramatic change. Despite being one of the more open Muslim countries Egypt may still be thought of as a fearful society under repression but Egyptians are revealed here as enthusiastically outspoken people full of fiery opinions. That may come as a surprise.
Youssef is clearly a confident showman accustomed to success but he’s also self-deprecating and stoically audacious as he pushes forward with his show in the face of government leadership that has no sense of humor and no compunction about killing people who piss them off or embarrass them.
As a surgeon he had achieved a level of prosperity and prestige enjoyed by very few people in the world. He turned away from that life to satirize dangerous power structures.
The hopeful courage of those who occupied Tahrir square is shown at ground level. Egyptians died in the Arab Spring. Too many more died during unrest around the subsequent election and later when Sisi ousted Morsi. The courage to stand and speak as Youssef did is profound. Americans should make note of this courage as we face our own political and cultural challenges where we may be called upon to resist.
Sara Taksler‘s lively, well executed documentary shares a moment in history that’s as riveting as it is informative and anxious.
Tickling Giants (2017) Directed by: Sara Taksler. Written By: Sara Taksler. Starring: Bassem Youssef, Jon Stewart, Shadi Alfons.
9 out of 10
Visit the official website for Tickling Giants.