Documentary Review: ‘Tickling Giants’

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/2/17 12:10am

In 2011, shortly after the resignation of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian surgeon Bassem Youssef created a satirical web series in an attempt to heal his country through comedy. Shortly thereafter he transitioned to TV and hosted “Al-Bernameg,” a news satire show that was modeled after “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and ran for three seasons. The Egyptian government, led by then-recently elected Mohamed Morsi, issued a warrant for Youssef’s arrest in 2013, accusing him of mocking Morsi and Islam.

Many Egyptians were thrilled when Morsi was removed from office by then Egyptian defense minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, yet that didn’t stop Youssef from satirizing the popular general on his show. And soon the most popular comedian in Egypt became one of its most controversial figures. Citizens that venerated Sisi, despite his authoritarian impulses, demanded that Youssef be taken off the air. Further pressure from the government led to the cancellation of “Al-Bernameg,” leading Youssef to flee to America. The story, as told in the new documentary “Tickling Giants,” is inspirational but also sad. Nonetheless, I think it contains an extraordinarily valuable message: Satire and comedy will always be a necessary and powerful way to deal with trauma and hold people in power accountable.

Just as I am not in the habit of reviewing TV shows, I am also not in the habit of reviewing documentaries. However, Youssef, who I discovered through his appearances on “The Daily Show,” fascinates me, and I wanted to learn more. “Tickling Giants” served that goal well as an extremely comprehensive look at Youssef’s impact on Egyptian political discourse. Youssef has been called by many the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” and this is a label that he seems to intentionally propagate. He openly admits to Stewart’s influence on his satire, and one of the most touching moments in “Tickling Giants” is when Youssef finally gets a chance to meet Stewart in person. While he is a guest on “The Daily Show,” he acts like a child in a candy store.

Although Stewart and Youssef may have much in common, “Tickling Giants” highlights how different their societal roles were due to the political environments they respectively commented on. Stewart satirized America by questioning its superiority complex embodied by the notion that America is “the greatest country in the world.” He seemed to ask, “if we’re so great, then why does our society still have so many problems?” That being said, America has remained relatively stable in a way that cannot be said for Egypt.

I think that far too often we see conflict in the Middle East through something of a keyhole. We forget far too easily that actual people are involved in events like the Arab Spring. “Tickling Giants” is most admirable when it tries to capture the humanity in the middle of the chaos. The first five minutes follow Youssef as he interviews protestors. It is a harrowing sequence but deeply necessary. At one point, Youssef comments that living in Egypt is like living through 9/11 every day. He and his writers wonder if there is value in their work — is it inappropriate to make jokes in the midst of all this suffering? But “Tickling Giants” reaffirms the belief that in the midst of suffering, jokes are most needed. Comedy heals, but it also clarifies. Using satire as a tool, Youssef is able to step back and thoughtfully analyze the confusion that surrounds him.

What I appreciate most about “Tickling Giants,” though, is the way it demonstrates Youssef’s impact on the people of Egypt. We regularly cut to citizens watching “Al-Bernameg” on the street or in bars, everyone laughing. But we also see public response turn ugly when Youssef insists on calling out Eygpt’s current President Sisi for his dictatorial nature. Sisi’s supporters insist that it’s time for the joke to end, but Youssef asserts that comedy should never stop holding people’s feet to the fire. We cannot simply ignore the faults of certain individuals because we happen to support them — a lesson that is shockingly relevant right now in this country.

By and large, “Tickling Giants” is exceptionally well-made. Director Sara Taksler has been tasked with an undeniably challenging balancing act: she must combine Youssef’s offbeat sense of humor with a complex narrative that is still unfolding. The first 20 minutes are admittedly a bit jarring — it’s clear that the film didn’t entirely know how to immerse the audience in its narrative. The inclusion of brief comedic animated segments helps to lighten the mood, but I wish that the documentary had been a little bit funnier. I understand that the subject matter is often serious and requires a certain amount of gravitas, but I think more humor would have also reinforced the central theme. When faced with fear, uncertainty and pain, you can either lower your head or pick yourself up and crack a joke.

Sadly, the documentary doesn’t really chronicle Youssef’s life after his move to America, which is a shame because his recent 10-episode digital series “Democracy Handbook” is hysterical and insightful in the way only he can be. Rather unsurprisingly, the funniest episode is about President Donald Trump prior to his election. It makes some amusing yet apt comparisons between Trump and Middle Eastern dictators. Now that Trump is in office, I have no doubt Youssef will continue to find ways to poke fun. I find comfort in the knowledge that Youssef is still tickling giants.

Rating: 8/10

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